Palmyra was established in 1874 by Geechee freedmen near Sunbury. Among its members over the years were Myers and Christine Anderson, the grandparents who raised future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in the Pinpoint community of Chatham County. Mr. Anderson was the subject of Thomas’s 2007 autobiography, My Grandfather’s Son.
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.
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].
The Fuller monument and the seven images that follow feature delicate hand-incised natural forms and symbols.
Located on the opposite corner of the intersection of the E. B. Cooper Highway and Barrington Ferry Road from First African Baptist Church, First Zion was established by members of the “Mother Church” in 1870-1871 with the Reverend U. L. Houston as its first pastor. The present structure was built in 1971 during the pastorate of Reverend B. N. Jones. The churchyard is a beautiful spot shaded by old-growth oaks.
The First African Baptist Church of Riceboro is considered the “Mother Church of all Black Churches in Liberty County”; the present structure was built in the 1960s to replace the original church. The community, just west of Riceboro, is locally known as Crossroads.
A marker placed by the Liberty County Historical Society notes: The First African Baptist Church, the oldest black church in Liberty County, had its origins in the North Newport Baptist Church, founded in 1809. In 1818 the North Newport Church, composed of both white and black members, purchased this site and erected a church building here [circa 1849] which had a gallery for the slave members. In 1854 the North Newport Church moved to Walthourville, but the black members in this area continued to use the old building. In 1861 the black members formed their own church organization and the first black pastor was the Reverend Charles Thin. On July 20, 1878 the North Newport Church sold the building to A. M. McIver for $225 for use by the First African Baptist Church.
One of the early white pastors of this church was the Reverend Josiah Spry Law to whom a cenotaph was erected here in 1854 by both blacks and whites.
Three other neighboring churches have been formed from the membership of this church: First Zion Baptist Church in 1870, First African Baptist Church of Jones in 1896, and Baconton Baptist Church in 1897.
A marker placed by the Liberty County Historical Society in 2003 notes: Founded in 1809, the North Newport Baptist Church has had several homes over the years. In 1923, the Church moved to this location and in 1952 the Church voted and renamed the church Walthourville Baptist Church. The original Church did not have a building of its own, so it shared facilities with the Sunbury Baptist Church. In 1864 the church building was burnt by General Sherman’s army as a signal for gunboats anchored in the channel. Before the building was burnt, the original Bible of the North Newport church was saved by members of the church.The present sanctuary was built in 1923. This building has two unique features; solid brick walls and a theater style floor made of heart pine. In 2000 the original tray ceiling and pine floor were restored.
Midway Congregational Church, founded in 1754 and a seat of power in the Colonial period, was associated with three satellite congregations known as retreats, because their locations, slightly more inland than Midway, offered a respite from the malarial swamps of the coast. The last of the retreat churches to be established was located at Dorchester. Its origins can be traced to nearby Sunbury, a short-lived boom town founded in 1758 whose trustees were members of Midway Church. Sunbury thrived nearly from its inception, rivaling Savannah in commercial importance, but its proximity to Fort Morris lead to its capture and subsequent burning by British troops during the American Revolution. While many such casualties of the war recuperated, Sunbury never seemed to regain its prominence after the devastating four-year occupation that followed. The hurricane of 1824 and a yellow fever epidemic sent many of its residents scattering into the nearby countryside. Huge plantations with names like Laurel Grove, Arcadia, Melon Bluff, Cedar Point, and Palmyra were emerging in the countryside around old Sunbury. In 1843 upon the suggestion of Reverend Thomas Sumner Winn, a tutor for prominent Presbyterian minister Charles Colcock Jones, a site was chosen for a retreat between Sunbury and Midway. It was originally known simply as “the Village,” but was soon christened Dorchester, in tribute to the heritage of its citizens. Some families built summer homes at Dorchester, though many tore down their dwellings near Sunbury and rebuilt them on the higher and drier ground the retreat afforded. As this new location was only six miles from Midway, the idea of building a church was not initially entertained, though an academy was built in which Sunday school was regularly taught. By 1854, with the continuing decline in membership at Midway, the families of the village built a permanent church, which still stands today. The old town bell from Sunbury, dated 1799, was placed in the steeple. The land was donated by Bartholomew Busby, who owned the nearby Melon Bluff Plantation. At first it was used only in summer, but by the onset of the Civil War was in regular use. The church was officially recognized by the Savannah Presbytery in 1871 and named Dorchester Presbyterian Church. The church holds services on the first Sunday of each month at 5 PM.
National Register of Historic Places
Flemington Presbyterian was the second of the Midway retreat churches. It remains the most active of all the congregations associated with Midway Congregational Church. In 1815, Midway member William Fleming established Gravel Hill, a retreat in the pinelands of Liberty County. Like the settlers of Walthourville before them, the people who came to Gravel Hill established a more permanent presence as time passed. For many summers, worship services were held in homes and then in a log structure which also housed a magistrate court. The first permanent church was built in 1832 on land given by Simon Fraser and was used for twenty years. The church followed the organization of Midway and was seen as a branch, not a mission, of Midway. In 1850 the name of the retreat was changed to Flemington in honor of William Fleming. A new home for the old Gravel Hill church was constructed between 1851 and 1852, and one of the selectmen of the congregation, T. Q. Cassels, was the architect. Though an amateur, he was well read in classical civilization and its monuments. The impressive steeple, to this day the pride of the congregation, was built by member Irwin Rahn. By the end of the Civil War, those who had settled in Flemington found the ten-mile trip to Midway nearly impossible, sought and were granted independence. In the spring of 1866, they officially adopted Presbyterianism. Upholding Puritan values of good education, a school was established, known by the 1830s as the Tranquill Institute. Confederate, then Union soldiers, used the old school as a hospital in 1864, and three of the Union casualties are buried in the Flemington cemetery. By the Victorian era, the Flemington Musical Society’s influence on popular entertainment in the area illustrates the shift away from Puritan roots toward a more secular society.
National Register of Historic Places
Founded in 1887 by the Reverend Joseph Williams, Ebenezer Presbyterian is an important African-American congregation. Reverend Williams’s headstone, which faces the church from across US 17, reads: In Memory of Rev. Joseph Williams – Founder of Presbyterianism among the colored people of Georgia – Born in Providence Island West Indies A. D. 1805 – Died at Riceboro Ga U.S.A. Nov. 22, 1899.
“A Chronicle of Black History in Liberty County, Georgia”, by Lillie Walthour Gillard, gives insight into the work of the Reverend Mr. Williams, as he was widely known.
The Reverend Joseph Williams, a native of the West Indies, came to Liberty County from Macon, Georgia, in the year 1867. On April 12, 1868, he organized a Presbyterian church in the building of “Old Midway” church with 300 members and worshipped there for eighteen years. This congregation became part of Knox Presbytery and of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., and was known as the Midway Presbyterian Church. Following a period of controversy over the rights of occupancy of Old Midway-Congregational or Presbyterian-the Reverend Mr. Williams organized a group of forty-six persons formerly members of a church pastored by Dr. C. C. Jones. In 1880 the church moved to Riceboro where a new building was constructed with the assistance of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.
The first retreat of the Midway colonists was located about fifteen miles inland, on higher and sandier ground. Initially, it was known as Sand Hills. Midway member Andrew Walthour built the first dwelling in the area in 1795 and was soon joined by a multitude of others. By 1800 the settlement became more permanent, and the name was changed to Walthourville. In 1820 a Union building was erected, since the retreat population were still congregants of Midway. At first, they went back and forth to the main church for baptisms and communion, but eventually the congregation at Walthourville was established. A new church was built circa 1845, and in 1855 they officially became Presbyterians. At this time they were given independence from Midway, but still maintained a spiritual bond. They were vastly successful as a congregation, being the second largest in the Savannah presbytery and the largest in terms of benevolent gifts. The journal of Judge John LeConte Harden, who spent much of his boyhood in the 1840s in Walthourville, fondly recalled a place called Tea Grove Farms. It was one of the most prosperous in the county, and quite early for a commercial farm; everything from tea, which was in cultivation in several locations around Liberty County at the time, to peaches, pears, apples and scuppernongs was produced at Tea Grove. The descendants of the Midway congregation who now made Walthourville their home were quite industrious and also grew sugar cane and were pioneers in the Southern naval stores industry. Fire destroyed the 1845 church and the present Walthourville Presbyterian Church was built in 1877-78. (The church building itself is actually located in Long County, just over the Liberty County line, but is associated with Liberty County and Midway and therefore included here).
Though the present church was built after emancipation, the slave gallery was retained in the architecture. I’m not sure if this was just a nod to the past, or simply to accommodate larger crowds from time to time.
National Register of Historic Places