The vernacular headstones of Sunbury Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery in the old Trade Hill-Seabrook area were memorialized by photographer Orrin Sage Wightman in Margaret Davis Cate’s beloved book, Early Days of Coastal Georgia (Fort Frederica Association, St. Simons Island, 1956). The images, made mostly in the 1930s and 1940s, depict monuments in much newer condition than we see today, and many which have vanished altogether. Still, its surviving collection of these iconic memorials make it one of the most important African-American cemeteries in Georgia.
The most significant of these monuments were predominately wooden markers and whimsies thought to have been made by Cyrus Bowens. None of these survive at the site today but a small collection of concrete markers remain, also attributed to Cyrus Bowens. [Findagrave lists a Cyrus Bowens, who died in 1866, among those buried at Sunbury Missionary Baptist, but these graves were made much later than that. This Cyrus Bowens appears to have been active in the 1930s].
In her essay “Negro Graves”, in Early Days of Coastal Georgia, Margaret Davis Cate writes: In old Negro burying grounds the grave is outlined with various and sundry items…The articles on the graves include every kind of container or utensil–sea shells…piggy banks…clocks…cups, saucers…Everything on a Negro grave is broken. To them, this is symbolic. Life is broken; the vessel is broken…Years ago Negroes put these broken articles on all their graves; but today, one finds them only in isolated communities far removed of the white man’s culture. To seek them out, one must leave the paved roads and search in remote areas…
The Fuller monument and the seven images that follow feature delicate hand-incised natural forms and symbols.
Though the present building was constructed in 1974, Sunbury Missionary Baptist Church was founded by Revs. Frank Harris and Andrew Neal, with 40 freedmen who had been members of Sunbury Baptist Church, which was burned by Union troops in November 1864. Sometime after the Civil War, the black congregation built a chapel near the Medway River. It was moved to this location, given by the Delegal family of the Trade Hill-Seabrook community, and reconstructed in 1918 and remained in use until the present structure was completed.