Tag Archives: Famous Georgians

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.

Archibald Butt Memorial Bridge, 1914, Augusta: Georgia’s Only Titanic Memorial

The Major Archibald Willingham Butt Memorial Bridge [shortened to Butt Bridge, locally] is Georgia’s only monument to a victim of the sinking of RMS Titanic and is also one of the most unusual. In terms of sheer size it’s likely the largest such memorial in the nation. Four regal lions guard the corners of the bridge and bald eagles perch atop lighted globes on both sides. The pedestrian friendly structure is also a great place to view the historic Augusta Canal.

It is quite an ostentatious tribute and by nature a “living memorial”, carrying thousands of cars per day over the Augusta Canal at 15th Street. Nisbet Wingfield, the city engineer and commissioner of public works for the city of Augusta, was the engineer for the bridge; William Henry Deacy, who specialized in memorials, was the architect; and the W. W. Leland Company was responsible for the whimsical decorations. [The reinforced concrete bridge is 52.8′ at its largest span, has an overall length of 155.8′, and has a deck width of 55.8′. It is a T-beam, designed to look like an arch form]. By 1994, the future of the bridge was uncertain, but citizens rallied to save it, with the phrase “Save our Butt” a common refrain throughout Augusta. It took over 20 years for everything to fall into place, but in 2017 rehabilitation of the bridge was complete and the future of one of the city’s most unique monuments was insured.

Major Archibald Butt (26 September 1865-15 April 1912) was born to a once-prominent Augusta family who had fallen into poverty after the Civil War. While attending the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, Butt developed an interest in journalism, eventually editing the school newspaper. Before moving to Washington, D. C., Butt worked at the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Macon Telegraph. Upon arriving in the nation’s capital, he covered the government as a correspondent for a syndicate of newspapers in Nashville, Augusta, Atlanta, and Savannah. Through his skillful journalism, he made valuable connections with Washington’s high society and this ultimately landed him a job as the first secretary of the American Embassy in Mexico (1895-1897). Over the next few years Butt continued to write. He also served as a quartermaster in the Spanish-American War, noted for saving the lives of some 500 mules by turning down poor conditions in Hawaii and sailing on to the Philippines, where he remained until 1904. His logistical skills as a supply manager drew much praise, and he later served as Depot Quartermaster in Havana during America’s 1906 occupation of Cuba.

Bronze relief of Major Butt by Henry Price

In March 1908, he began serving as the military aide-de-camp to President Theodore Roosevelt, and retained that position with the incoming Taft administration. The military aides-de-camp of this time were essentially protocol chiefs and had close working relationships with presidents. Taft considered Major Butt a close friend, and the Taft family, as a result, were fond of visiting Augusta.

Butt never married and was the housemate and companion of the American painter and sculptor, Francis Davis Millet. Millet had been peripherally associated with the salon of John Singer Sargent and knew many of the finest artists in America during his lifetime. In 1912, Butt took leave from his White House job when animosities flared between Taft and Roosevelt, and he and Millet had been vacationing in Europe, highlighted by an audience with Pope Pius X, before embarking for home on the Titanic. It was said that both men helped women and children onto lifeboats before losing their lives, though this may be apocryphal. Taft was known to have been deeply saddened by Butt’s death.

Major Archibald Willingham Butt (detail of circa 1909 photograph) via Library of Congress. Public domain.

A fountain dedicated to the memory of Butt and Millet was placed in President’s Park at the White House in 1913. In April 1914, former-President Taft visited Augusta to pay tribute to his close friend, and spoke at the dedication of the Memorial Bridge.

Augusta Canal Industrial District, National Register of Historic Places + National Historic Landmark + Augusta Canal National Heritage Area

James Oglethorpe Statue, 2003, Augusta

Though he is best known for establishing the Georgia colony and the city of Savannah, James Edward Oglethorpe was also the founder of Augusta. An imposing statue, on the Augusta Common, celebrates his association with the city and depicts him in civilian clothing around the time of the city’s founding. It was created by the noted husband and wife artistic team of Jeffrey H. and Anna Koh Varilla and dedicated on 6 February 2003. It is one of only two life-size tributes to General Oglethorpe in the state, the other being Daniel Chester French’s iconic 1910 Savannah statue, which depicts Oglethorpe in a British general’s uniform.

James Brown Statue, 2005, Augusta

Known as much for his tireless stage presence as his rocky personal life, James Brown (3 May 1933-25 December 2006) was known as the Godfather of Soul, and considered himself “the Hardest Working Man in Show Business”. Born into poverty in Barnwell, South Carolina, he moved at age five with his father and aunt to Augusta, which he considered his hometown. The city honored him with a statue on Broad Street on 6 May 2005. There’s also a James Brown Boulevard in the heart of the city’s historic Black neighborhood.

The sculpture is the work of Montezuma-born orthopedic surgeon John Savage, who has gained notoriety for his artistic pursuits.

Tabernacle Baptist Church, 1914, Augusta

It isn’t an exaggeration to say that Tabernacle Baptist Church is one of the most beautiful and unique religious facilities in all of Augusta. Situated on the city’s historic “Black Main Street”, Laney-Walker Boulevard, it is an imposing presence in the community. It grew out of the divided congregation of Central African Baptist Church and was first known as Beulah, but, at the request of founding pastor Reverend Charles Thomas Walker (5 February 1858-29 July 1921) changed its name to Tabernacle just two days later. Its membership grew from an initial 300 to over 2000 by 1889. Its original location was Ellis Street; the present structure dates to 1914.

The church prospered during the pastorate of Reverend Walker and garnered international attention and support from men as diverse as President William Howard Taft [a frequent visitor to Augusta], John D. Rockefeller, Booker T. Washington, and George Washington Carver, who all attended services at Tabernacle. Reverend Walker, who was born into slavery at Hephzibah, was the first African-American theologian to visit the Holy Land, was appointed by President McKinley as the U. S. Volunteers Chaplain with the U. S. 9th Immune Infantry during the Spanish-American War, with the rank of Captain, and during a residency at Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in New York, established the first African-American YMCA in Harlem. He also established the Walker Baptist Institute and served in numerous leadership roles within the Baptist faith.

During the pastorate of Reverend Charles Spencer Hamilton, Tabernacle became a center for the Civil Rights Movement in Augusta. In April 1962, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached here. The church remains prominent in Augusta’s religious and cultural life.

Laney-Walker North Historic District, National Register of Historic Places

Chief James Vann House, 1804, Spring Place

[This replaces a post by the same title originally published on 19 February 2019.]

James Vann (1765, or,1768-1809) was the son of a Cherokee mother, Wa-wli, and Scottish father, Clement Vann. By 1800  he became a principal leader of the Cherokee, due to his wealth and influence as a planter, tavern keeper, trading post operator, and general entrepreneur. In fact, he was thought to be the wealthiest of all Cherokee.

Chief James Vann House, Front Elevation

This home, the first of brick construction in the Cherokee nation, was built between 1804-1806. It served as the seat of James Vann’s extensive plantation on Diamond Hill. It was called the “Showplace of the Cherokee Nation”. Its success was dependent upon the labor of over 100 enslaved people, who were housed in 42 dwellings on the property. Vann was known to be quite cruel to his slaves, or to tolerate cruelty among his overseers, and this is rightfully reinforced through interpretation at the property today. Sometimes described as a “hard drinking business man”, he nonetheless encouraged cultural and educational opportunities for the Cherokee, through his assistance in the establishment of the Moravian mission and school at Spring Place. James Vann was murdered in 1809, presumably as retaliation for killing his brother-in-law in a duel the previous year. He left his home and property to his son Joseph (often referred to as Rich Joe). Joseph was also a Cherokee chieftain. An overnight visit by President James Monroe, traveling from Augusta to Nashville in 1819, was indicative of the prominence of the family and the quality of the house.

Chief James Vann House, Rear Elevation

It is believed that a man named Vogt [possibly James Vann’s brother-in-law Charles Vogt] and Dr. Henry Chandlee Forman were involved in the construction of the house.

Stairway, Chief James Vann House

Diaries of Moravian missionaries at Spring Place indicate that Byhan and Martin Schneider were also instrumental in the construction. It incorporates both Federal and Georgian design elements.

Foyer, Chief James Vann House

A Moravian settler named Robert Henry Howell is believed to have been the brick mason. The stylish interior elements were added during the ownership of Joseph (Rich Joe) Vann and may have been the work of John and James McCartney. Further documentation of this is needed.

Dining Room, Chief James Vann House, with portrait of Joseph Vann

After the Cherokee were driven west on the Trail of Tears, the house was sold and over the next century would have 17 different owners.

Drawing Room, Chief James Vann House

By the time Dr. J. E. Bradford, who had purchased the home in 1920, sold it to the Georgia Historical Commission in 1952, it was in a state of serious disrepair.

Bedroom, Chief James Vann House

An historically accurate restoration of the interior began in 1958 and was completed circa 1964.

The Slave Experience at the Chief Vann House

Re-creation of Kitchen/Workhouse, Chief James Vann House

The historic site uses three-dimensional models and the words of Moravian missionaries to interpret the slave experience at the Vann House. North Georgia was not a stronghold of slavery, so the example of the Vann plantation is exceptional. The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story by Tiya Miles, focuses on this subject, and incorporates previously overlooked primary sources.

Patience, a woman enslaved by James Vann

While the kitchen is very stylized and includes typical interpretive aids related to work, it stands out for the figures representing specific slaves who lived on the property along with brief anecdotes about their lives. The Moravian missionaries wrote in the their mission journal on 25 November 1810: “...a person named Patience caused us to feel much pity. She arrived in Charleston with some other Africans some years ago in the wintertime and afterward came to Vann’s plantation barefooted. She lost both of her feet because of the frost and now has to scoot on her knees…

Pleasant, a woman enslaved by Moravian missionaries John and Anna Gambold at Spring Place

Though the Moravians frowned upon individual members owning slaves, the church could purchase and assign them to missionary families as needed, and their views were ultimately aligned with those of other whites of the time. A middle-aged woman named Pleasant (1758?-1838) was purchased in April 1805 by the Home Church in Salem, North Carolina, and came to Spring Place to serve the missionary couple John and Anna Gambold. She was pregnant at the time. On 21 December 1805 Christian Lewis Benzien wrote to the Unity Elders Conference of the Moravian Church: On Sept. 29 on the way to Spring Place [Pleasant] gave birth to a mulatto infant which was baptized in Spring Place on October 20 with the name Michael…

Michael, son of Pleasant, enslaved by the Gambold family at Spring Place

Michael was given the honor of learning to read and often read the Bible to the Cherokee children at the Moravian school and was highly regarded by his owners, but typical of teenagers, he grew restless. In 1819, at the age of 14, he ran away from the Gambolds and when captured was sold away from Pleasant.

Reconstructed Historic Structures of Chief Vann House State Historic Site

Coahulla Creek corn crib (reconstruction), representative of an early 1800s Cherokee corn crib

To illustrate the contemporary vernacular architecture that would have been present on the Vann property, the Georgia State Parks division has reconstructed representative structures from the area, and built at least one from the ground up [kitchen], for this purpose.

Little Scarecorn Creek Cabin (reconstruction), representative of an early 1800s Cherokee dwelling

The vernacular architectural forms and the use of available material are representative not only of the Cherokee of the area but of the increasing numbers of white settlers, as well.

Sugar Creek Cabin (reconstruction), early 1800s Cherokee building

National Register of Historic Places

Jesse “Lone Cat” Fuller Mural, Jonesboro

Jesse “Lone Cat” Fuller isn’t well known today, outside music circles, but he should be. The itinerant bluesman left his native Jonesboro after a childhood typical of Black Georgians of his day and after a series of manual labor jobs in various states, wound up in California circa 1920. He worked as a shoe-shine man outside the United Artists studio in Hollywood and was a favorite of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who helped set him up with a hot dog stand. He also got him work as an extra, in such notable films as Thief of Baghdad. With the money he saved from that enterprise, he moved to Oakland and began working for the Southern Pacific Railroad. When his railroad job ended after World War II, he went back to shining shoes, singing as he worked, and gained notice from musicians in the burgeoning Folk movement who were then flocking to the Bay Area. Due to his exposure in local bars and cafes, he recorded his first album in 1958. He had trouble finding, or paying, other musicians to back him up; as a result he invented the fotdella, a six-string bass, rigged with a cymbal. He also invented a rack to hold his harmonica and kazoo. He was a one-man band. Bob Dylan supposedly adopted his harmonica rig after listening to Fuller and recorded his song “You’re No Good” on his first album.

Fuller gained notoriety for “San Francisco Bay Blues”, which was covered by numerous artists including the Grateful Dead, Janis, Joplin, Jim Croce, and Eric Clapton.

The mural, by Shannon Lake, is a nice tribute to this influential artist.

Antioch Baptist Church, 1911, Lithonia

Established by a group of Freedmen in 1869, Antioch-Lithonia Missionary Baptist Church [known originally as Antioch Baptist Church] is thought to be the oldest African-American congregation in Lithonia and DeKalb County. The church first met in a brush arbor and built their first permanent structure circa 1871. It was replaced by this structure, clad in local stone, in 1911, and served the congregation until 2004, when a larger facility was built at another location.

Reverend Adam Daniel Williams, the maternal grandfather of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., served the congregation at one time.

Lithonia Historic District, National Register of Historic Places & Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area

Palmyra Missionary Baptist Church, Seabrook

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.

Oakview Cemetery, Albany

Oakview and the adjacent Riverside Cemetery make up the largest historic burial ground in Albany. I’m presenting just a few of the monuments which I found aesthetically appealing, in no particular order. One could spend a whole day here exploring the wide array of Victorian monuments.

Martha Dillon Wright Jones (17 October 1833-2 July 1860)

“Pattie’s Grave” is perhaps the best-loved monument in Oak Hill. My taphophile friend, Cynthia Jennings, told me that it was a must-see and it didn’t disappoint. Pattie was the nickname of Martha Dillon Wright Jones. The monument features an angel of white Italian marble housed in a Gothic steeple enclosure. Little is known of Pattie, but the monument notes that she married Columbia County native Edwin Thomas Jones (22 May 1831-1 September 1867) at Appling, Georgia, on 4 April 1850. Jones would later serve as Lieutenant of Company E, 4th Georgia Infantry. It further notes that Pattie “died at the plantation of her husband…in Dougherty County”. The monument is an indication that he was deeply saddened by her early death.

Jones Plot, ornamental willow fence, unsigned

Edward Vason Jones, scion of a prominent Albany family, was one of the most noted Georgia architects of his time and a member of the Georgia School of Classicism led by J. Neel Reid. Originally schooled in dentistry, he abandoned it in favor of architecture in 1936, and soon joined the Atlanta firm of Hentz, Reid, and Adler. He briefly designed ships for the Navy in World War II at Savannah. After the war he opened his own firm in Albany. His renovations of the Diplomatc Reception Rooms of the U. S. State Department between 1965-1980 were well-received and one of those rooms is now known as the Edward Vason Jones Memorial Hall. He also oversaw renovations in the White House during the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations. Other significant work include Gillionville Plantation, the Mississippi Governor’s Mansion, and numerous residential commissions throughout the South.

Edward Vason Jones (3 August 1909-1 October 1980)

This Classical monument adorns the grave of Edward Vason Jones’s beloved daughter Nella. It is said to have been modeled after one of similar design in Savannah’s Bonaventure Cemetery, which was destroyed by a storm in recent years.

Nella Vason Jones (23 August 1949-30 November 1968)

This is one of six nearly identical markers, made of local stone, in an eight-grave lot surrounded by coping of the same construction.

E. Louise Gilbert (4 August 1886-20 August 1887)

The figurative monuments of the Bell sisters, daughters of William S. and Texas Sheffield Bell, are typical of the Victorian era, when child mortality rates were nearly 33% higher than they are today.

Willie Sheffield Bell (24 January 1876-18 September 1880)
Fannie Sheffield Bell (24 September 1880-3 November 1891)

The monuments honoring two of the children of Dr. Palaemon L Hilsman and Ella G. Rust Hilsman are more examples of Victorian child mortality. Even in a family of doctors, the Hilsman children weren’t immune from early deaths.

Roy Hilsman (21 June 1878-4 October 1880)
Madeline Bower Hilsman (19 February 1882-15 April 1884)

The Greek Revival mausoleum of the Samuel Bernard Brown family [founder of the Exchange National Bank], in the Jewish section, is one of the finest in Oakview.

Samuel Bernard Brown (1 February 1855-21 January 1922) and family

Tomlinson Fort was Regents Professor and Chair of the Mathematics Department at the University of Georgia for many years. His son followed his footsteps to academia and chaired the Chemical Engineering departments of Carnegie Mellon and Vanderbilt universities. The Forts were descendants of Warrenton-born Tomlinson Fort (1787-1859; buried at Memory Hill in Milledgeville), an early Georgia medical doctor who helped establish the Medical College of Georgia and the State Lunatic Asylum. He was also a member of the Georgia legislature and the United States Houses of Representatives.

Tomlinson Fort (1886-1970) & Madeline Scott Fort (1908-1983)

John Porter Fort was the son of Congressman Tomlinson Fort. He dug the first artesian well in South Georgia and was an early booster of the apple industry in North Georgia. An early agricultural scientist, he was awarded a “Doctor of Science” by the University of Georgia.

John Porter Fort (16 August 1941-12 February 1917), detail of cornucopia relief

Nelson Tift, a native of Groton, Connecticut, was the founder of Albany.

Nelson Tift (23 July 1810-21 November 1891)
Tift Family Plot identification stone