Atlanta History, through Oakland Cemetery: Margaret Mitchell

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HOFAmbassadorsThis is part of an occasional series, exploring the history of my adopted home town, Atlanta. As an Ambassador for the Historic Oakland Foundation, I focus on the “residents” of Oakland Cemetery, using their lives to tell the history of the ATL.

The celebrated and humble rest together at Oakland. Tycoon and pauper, Christian and Jew, black and white, powerful and meek, soldier and civilian—all are here, Including:

Margaret Mitchell, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Gone With the Wind

MargaretportraitcourtesyofAtlFultonLibraryMargaret Mitchell was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on November 8, 1900. As a child, she was fascinated by the Civil War stories she heard from Confederate veterans. The imaginative girl wrote, produced, and directed plays, casting her friends, and inviting the neighborhood to the porch performances. Explaining how the idea for her novel came to her, Margaret Mitchell said, “in the cradle”. She had heard so much as a child about the battles and the hard times following the Civil War, she believed, for a long time, that her parents had actually been through it. The Pulitzer Prize winning novel was first published in 1936 and sold more than a million copies in the first six months. It is reputed to be the second most read book in the world, with the Bible being number one.

Mitchell entered Smith College in the fall of 1918 but soon suffered major setbacks. First, she received news that her fiancé, Clifford Henry, was killed in action in World War I. The following January, her mother died during a flu epidemic. Mitchell left college to take charge of the Atlanta household of her father and her older brother, Stephens.

After making her debut, the free-spirited Mitchell scandalized Atlanta society by performing a provocative dance at a debutante ball. Two years later the headstrong flapper married Berrien “Red” Upshaw, an ex-football player and bootlegger. Financial pressures led her to begin writing for the Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine where she earned $25 per week. Their stormy marriage ended in divorce in 1924. Within a year she married John Marsh, a former suitor and an editor at the paper. Soon after, Mitchell left her job to convalesce from a series of injuries. During this period she began writing the book that would make her famous.

Gone With the Wind was published in June 1936. Mitchell was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her sweeping novel the following May. It was made into an equally famous motion picture starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable. The movie had its world premiere at the Loew’s Grand Theater in Atlanta December 15, 1939. (This building was extensively damaged as the result of a fire on January 30, 1978. The Georgia-Pacific Tower was built on the former site of the theater. Bricks from the building were recycled and used to build a popular Atlanta restaurant, Houston’s, located five miles North, at 2166 Peachtree in Buckhead.)

Following the publication of Gone With the Wind and the release of the motion picture, Mitchell had the financial resources to support philanthropic interests, including numerous social service organizations in Atlanta and medical scholarships for Morehouse College students. During World War II, the U.S.S. Atlanta sank during battles off Guadalcanal. Mitchell led war bond drives for funds to build a replacement ship, raising $65 million in only sixty days. She christened this U.S.S. Atlanta in February 1944.

On August 11, 1949, while crossing the intersection of Peachtree and 13th Streets, Margaret Mitchell was struck by an off-duty cab driver. She died five days later and was buried in Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery. Her marker is often hard for folks to find because they are looking for the surname “Mitchell” but she is buried under Marsh, her husband’s name.

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Born in nearby Old Fourth Ward, as a child, Margaret often rode her pony, Nellie, through Oakland’s grounds, so it is fitting that she came back here. Near the Marsh grave is a gas lamp that was one of the original 50 installed by the Atlanta Gas Light company in 1856. The lamp, which bears scars from the bombing of Atlanta in 1864, was donated to the cemetery by Franklin Miller Garrett. The keen observer might notice that the plaque that describes the gas lamp’s history incorrectly dates the lamp to 1850.

Special tours at Oakland Featuring Margaret Mitchell: Saturday: 7/6, Sunday 9/15: This tour will visit the gravesites of Margaret Mitchell and her husband, John Marsh, as well as other Mitchell family members and pioneers of Atlanta. Meet several residents Margaret Mitchell is believed to have used as a basis for characters in Gone With the Wind. While none of the characters in the novel are specifically based on real life people, she scrambled appearances and personalities of some she knew and knew of, to weave a compelling saga of a world turned upside down.

ALSO: Guided tours of the Margaret Mitchell House are offered daily and include visits to her Crescent Avenue apartment, which she affectionately nicknamed “The Dump,” and to exhibitions about her life and the movie version of her book. The historic space where Mitchell wrote Gone With the Wind provides an apt setting for learning about her motives for writing the novel and the lifestyle of the author and her husband, John Marsh, in 1920s Atlanta.

The Dump, now the Margaret Mitchell House, located in Midtown Atlanta
The Dump, now the Margaret Mitchell House, located in Midtown Atlanta

A bit about Historic Oakland Cemetery:  In the mid 1800’s the city of Atlanta outgrew its downtown municipal cemetery. Six acres of farmland on the edge of town were purchased to take its place. Later, in response to increased population brought in by the railroad and the need to lay 7,000 Civic War soldiers to rest, additional land was purchases to bring Oakland Cemetery to its present 48 acres. Originally called Atlanta or City Cemetery, Oakland was renamed in 1872 because of the many oak trees on the property. The Water Oaks at the entrance to Oakland are what is left of a grand line. At the end of their life cycle, these trees will not be replaced due to their destructive root system.

Located just five blocks east of the State Capital, it is the city’s oldest landmark in continuous use and was placed on the Register of Historic Places in 1976. Atlanta’s most historic cemetery is the permanent home of over 70,000 of its most prosperous citizens as well as its most destitute. Oakland Cemetery evolved during the Victorian era and is a superb example of the rural garden cemetery, a style highly fashionable at the time. Such burial grounds are rare and are distinguished by magnificent mausoleums, elaborate monuments and a park like settings. Don’t miss the gift shop!

Oakland Cemetery

248 Oakland Avenue SE

Atlanta, GA 30312

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Beth

I'm a professional vagabond. I quit my cubical job in January 2014. Since then, I've hiked the Appalachian Trail, The Camino, and taught English in Vietnam, Turkey, Russia, Spain and Mexico. I'm exploring the world.

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