Category Archives: St. Simons Island GA

Peter Joseph’s Store, Circa 1900, St. Simons Island

This was the general store and boarding house of Peter Joseph, a leader of the historic Black community of South End on St. Simons Island. Built circa 1900, per the Glynn County Historic Resources Report [2009], it was razed circa 2016. The only Peter Joseph I can locate on St. Simons was born in 1903 and died in 1966; if this is the same Peter Joseph, it would mean the store was built by someone else, perhaps a member of his family. I will attempt to update this if I can find out anything more.

These photographs were made in February 2015.

As the images confirm, the structure had long been abandoned when I photographed it. It was an important resource for a long lost community, so I’m glad I had the opportunity to document it.

Strangers Cemetery, St. Simons Island

Officially known as Union Memorial Cemetery, Strangers Cemetery gets its unusual name from those interred here. Former slaves (and their descendants) who toiled on the island’s plantations prior to Emancipation were buried on those properties. The original “strangers” were freedmen who came to the island after the Civil War and worked primarily in sawmills along the Frederica River. Many remained for generations in three thriving black communities: Harrington, Jewtown, and South End, and some were interred here, as they weren’t allowed to bury on the former plantation lands. While most marked graves are in very good condition, a large number of unmarked graves exist, as well.

Among later “strangers” is Mary Elizabeth “Bessie” Sampson Jones (8 February 1902-4 September 1984). She was born in Smithville (Lee County) and never knew her biological father. Her mother moved to an uncle’s farm in nearby Dawson when Bessie was a baby and while there married James Sampson, who was a father figure to Bessie. Of her childhood, she wrote: “I never has went to school a whole term and I didn’t get past the fifth grade; every school day I had to keep other people’s babies and sometimes I had to work in the fields.” Music was always present in Bessie Jones’s childhood. Her mother Julia played the autoharp and James Sampson played numerous instruments by ear. Her grandfather, Jet Sampson, was an accordionist. He was enslaved, along with five brothers, around 1843 and died in 1941 at the age of 105. Listening to his stories and songs, Bessie gained many insights that would inform her later work.

Bessie Jones. on the set of “Music of Williamsburg” film, Williamsburg, Virginia, April 28, 1960. Photo by Alan Lomax. AFC Alan Lomax Collection (AFC 2004/004).

In 1914 a very young Jones gave birth to her first child, Rosalie. The child’s father, Cassius Davis, was a native of the Georgia Sea Islands and had come to the Dawson area seeking farm work. After World War I Bessie lived briefly in Milan and Fitzgerald. Cassius died in Brunswick in 1926. For the next seven years she lived in Florida. In Okeechobee she married George Jones and in 1933 they moved to St. Simons Island. They had two sons: George L. Jones (1935) and Joseph (1937). George died in 1945. After his death Bessie got involved with the Spiritual Singers of Coastal Georgia, perhaps the first group to formally attempt to preserve and perform the slave songs and spirituals of the Sea Island Gullah and Geechee people. It was a great honor for Bessie to have been invited to join the group, as she was not a native of the islands.

Bessie met musicologist and folkorist Alan Lomax in 1959 and a couple of years later he recorded a series of songs, stories, and interviews with her at his apartment in New York City. In 1963, the Georgia Sea Island Singers were established. Lomax arranged a tour that took the group to colleges around the country and a decade of travel followed. They participated in the Poor People’s March in 1968 and appeared at Carnegie Hall, the Newport Folk Festival, Montreal World’s Fair, Central Park, and numerous Smithsonian Folk Life Festivals. In 1976, the Sea Island Singers performed at the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter. In 1982, Mrs. Jones received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, but died of leukemia later that year.

Peter Stone and Ellen Harold’s profile of Bessie Jones at the Association for Cultural Equity, from which this was condensed, is an excellent source for further reading.

Apartment Houses, St. Simons Island

These structures, likely built in the 1950s, were located behind Bennie’s Red Barn Restaurant in the historic Harrington community on St. Simons Island. They were lost to development by 2020.

My identification of the structures as apartment houses is tentative, as I have been unable to confirm anything about them. I have been told they were built for employees of Sea Island or that they may have been owned by the late Alonza Ramsey (c. 1932-2010), a legendary resident of the Harrington community whose Old Plantation Supper Club was a longtime favorite. I have no idea which, if either, is correct, but the layout of the houses would indicate company housing or rentals.

By the time I documented them in 2017, they appeared to have been abandoned for quite some time and were obviously returning to the elements.

The structures were utilitarian in design and represented modern and practical housing in the mid-20th century.

They were built of cinderblock, like the nearby vernacular church and Masonic lodge.

If I recall correctly, there were 5 or 6 buildings in the oak grove that dominated the neighborhood.

This was one of the largest remaining historic Black resources on St. Simons before it was demolished, even if it didn’t have the elements that many would consider worthy of preservation. Describing the loss of such places, Patrik Jonsson wrote in The Christian Science Monitor in 2002: Blacks once owned 86 percent of St. Simons, but now the small remaining settlements are intertwined with development roads and gated condosWhere small ramshackle villages once stood in the shade of giant live oaks, hacienda-style townhomes now crawl all the way up to the water.

I hope someone will reach out who knows more than I do about this place. There must be some great stories.

Hunting on St. Simons, 1925

In the early 20th century, St. Simons Island was a popular destination for hunters from all over the country. Much like Sapelo Island today, it was scarcely developed and was home to numerous Geechee-Gullah people. The island was still a wild place in the winter of 1925 when this series of real photo postcards documenting a hunting trip were made. The first image shows a local African-American guide navigating a skiff through one of the numerous tidal creeks that characterize the island landscape. I don’t recognize the location, but the boat docked at the far right of the image may have the name “Frederica”.

I’m surprised that hunters were interested in raccoons, but the sender of these cards, Mr. Walter Friedlander of Roselle, New Jersey, made special mention of their abundance when writing home to his wife.

This is one of the thousands of Raccoons on this island. May be millions…”

I was unable to reproduce the other cards in this series, but a buck and several hogs were among the other game taken on the trip.

Village Cemetery, St. Simons Island

The sacred ground on St. Simons known as Village Cemetery is one of the most important African-American burial grounds in Georgia. Closely watched over and maintained by the First African Baptist Church of St. Simons, it is the final resting place of countless souls who worked nearby plantations from the early 19th century to Emancipation, and their descendants. It should be noted that until World War II, and perhaps a bit later, African-Americans were much more numerous on St. Simons, living in various historical communities scattered around the island.

I found the cemetery by accident and was so moved by its beauty that I felt an urgency to document its most important monuments. Though there are countless unmarked and unknown burials, the oldest surviving section of the cemetery contains numerous vernacular headstones. These nationally significant treasures represent the resourcefulness and perhaps shed light on some of the traditions of the first and second generations of freedmen who remained on the island after emancipation. In early 19th century Georgia, slave burials were decorated with the last object used by the deceased. It is likely that the decorated graves in Village Cemetery are a continuation of that tradition. The cemetery is active so modern headstones and markers are also present.

I hope that the church or others with more knowledge of the cemetery’s history will work to have it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A survey was published by the Golden Isles Archaeology Society in 2000 and the cemetery has been documented on Findagrave. I am unable to share the location of the cemetery but those interested may wish to contact the First African Baptist Church.

Vernacular Monuments of Village Cemetery

Hattie Lee (29 November 1871-6 June 1929)

The Hattie Lee monument features a mosaic of glass and shells in the form of a vase or tree of life. It is the most colorful of all the surviving monuments.

Thomas A. Lee (9 August 1881-10 January 1933)
Aaron Lomon (8 July 1891-19 August 1931)

The Aaron Lomon monument features a hand-sculpted bell, ringing.

Peter Ramsey (17 February 1873-2 April 193?)

The Peter Ramsey monument features a mosaic star and beautiful raised lettering.

John Davis (April 1871-21 September 1927)

The John Davis monument features an encircled star mosaic centered with milk glass.

Albert Hampton (1 April 1897-5 November 1937)

The Albert Hampton monument features a garland of pebbles in a design I don’t recognize. In African burial customs, shells and stones represented the boundary to the afterlife. In African cultures, white often represented death, so the light color of the stones is an affirmation of that tradition.

Jim Hightower (30 October 1884-7 June 1934)

The Jim Hightower monument features an interesting placement of letters and a star. The name is spelled phonetically, which was common in an era when African-Americans were often denied a basic education. There is slight damage to the lower right side of the stone.

Louise Hunter Hightower (27 January 1887-24 March 1964)
Mary Floyd, Hunter Baffo.

There is no discernible information about the deceased on this simple headstone. Also, there are two decedents listed.

Edward Floyd (March?-May?)

Though it appears to be the resting place of Floyd Edward, the presence of other Floyds in the cemetery suggest it is likely Edward Floyd. Unfortunately, this is often encountered and illustrates the difficulties of African-American genealogy.

Phillist White (23 January 1893-4 December 1927)

I’m sharing this monument to represent the others of this manufacture bearing the symbol of the Mosaic Templars of America. This was an African-American fraternal organization founded by former slaves in 1882 to provide life and burial insurance to the communities they served. The local chapter was known as the Wesley Oak Chamber 2128.

Baiting a Crab Trap, St. Simons Island

This gentleman [known on the island as The Original Crabman] was getting his crab trap ready when I was walking out to the end of the pier to photograph the progress on the Golden Ray cleanup effort. As is typical, he was using a chicken neck and fish head as bait. After dropping his trap in the water off the pier for just a few minutes, he brought it back up with several crabs.

Huie House, 1928, St. Simons Island

This early example of the International Style, designed by Macon architect Fred Stroberg, uniquely employees the local building material known as tabby to make a bold statement about the past and the future. It has also been referred to as “Mediterranean House” and the outline of a shed roof on the side indicates it may have had such a decorative element at one time, but it’s decidedly International in appearance and spirit, making it an even more significant landmark.

The house is primarily associated with the late Mildred Weigle Nix Huie (1907-2000). A native of Augusta, Mrs. Huie received a degree in Classical Education from Florida State University. She and her husband Carl purchased the house in 1967 and it remained Mrs. Huie’s home and studio until her death. Mrs. Huie was an accomplished Impressionist painter, sculptor and historian, and upon establishing the Left Bank Art Gallery in 1962, became an integral part of the St. Simons cultural scene, through the fostering of other artists and the free access she provided to her own collection as well as philanthropic pursuits.

Mrs. Huie’s daughter, Millie Wilcox, maintained the home as the Mildred Huie Museum for more than a decade after her mother’s death.

The property was the first site acquired by the St. Simons Land Trust in 2018 and though the museum itself is closed, the grounds are a welcome respite from the busy commercial area of Frederica Road, open and free to all.

Bungalow, 1940s, St. Simons Island

The property surrounding this front gable bungalow has recently been cleared, suggesting it’s likely to soon be redeveloped. This is one of just a few surviving vernacular structures in the scattered community known as Jewtown. The community got its name from the Levison brothers, who had a thriving store about a mile east of Gascoigne Bluff. They called it Levisonton but the name didn’t stick and residents referred to the area as Jewtown. Like the other two historic African-American communities on St. Simons, Harrington and South End, Jewtown is largely indistinguishable from the rest of the island today. I believe the cottage dates to circa 1940-1945, making it a relatively late construction for the community.

Gable Front Cottage, 1930s, St. Simons Island

First African Baptist Church, 1869, St. Simons Island

Though it has been expanded during its history, the original circa 1869 core remains in this venerable church, built by Freedmen. Enslaved men and women established this congregation circa 1859 and when they were able, they built their own house of worship, which still serves their descendants to this day. If you’re driving to Christ Church or Fort Frederica, don’t overlook this important part of the island’s history.