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.
This vernacular house form, once quite common, is endangered today on the coast. Though it was a widespread utilitarian form, in Georgia it’s most associated with Geechee-Gullah people. Similar examples survive on Sapelo Island, among other historic Black communities.
Rising Daughter Missionary Baptist Church is an historic congregation, but other than its association with a tragic unsolved murder case, I haven’t been able to locate any of its history. It’s one of several important early Black churches near the Satilla River in Camden County.I determined it’s an old congregation due to the historic cemetery.
Though the congregation has not allowed itself to be defined by a well-known tragedy, and has thrived in fact, Rising Daughter has been known to the outside world for the events of 11 March 1985. At a missionary meeting on that date, a white man interrupted the proceedings and senselessly shot and killed Deacon Harold Swain and his wife Thelma inside the church, with no apparent motive. Witnesses noted that the intruder pointed to Harold Swain and specifically asked to speak to him. As Mr. Swain walked toward the entryway to speak to man, his wife followed. She was shot once and Mr. Swain was shot four times. The only real evidence was a pair of glasses left by the shooter at the scene, and a composite sketch made by descriptions from some of the ladies who were in the church for the meeting. No one was arrested for nearly 15 years.
A new investigator came on the scene in 1998 and his focus turned to Dennis Perry, who was arrested and ultimately convicted of the crime in 2000, an election year. Perry had been an early suspect, based on an identification made from the composite sketch and the presumably false testimony of a woman (now deceased) who collected a reward, unbeknownst to jurors at the time. Fast forward to 2020, and Dennis Perry has been exonerated, thanks to the work of the Georgia Innocence Project and irrefutable DNA evidence. Today, he is a free man.
A possible DNA match is being investigated by those who have reopened the case and hopefully justice will finally be done, most importantly for the loved ones of the Swain family.
Rising Daughter Cemetery
Rising Daughter Cemetery has quite a few important vernacular monuments, including two of the Madonna monuments detailed here. A few random examples are documented below.
African-Americans have been well-established in the Tarboro community since the days of slavery, and in subsequent years owned land and farms throughout the area. Clinch Chapel traces its origins to an informal congregation organized by Brother Zachery Butler to serve the spiritual needs of enslaved people from the nearby Owens, King, and Clinch plantations. After years of meeting in a brush arbor, the congregation erected a wood frame church in 1896, using trees milled at Ceylon plantation and floated on the Satilla to Owens Ferry, from where they were hauled on oxcarts to this site. The first trustees of the congregation were Josh Washington, Rinea Washington, Henry Robinson, Hanna Robinson, Isaac Johnson, Lucy Nicklow, Pompey Gordon, and Lizzie Gordon.
The new church was destroyed by a storm and reorganized in 1897, and again in 1901, at which time a new structure was constructed. Reverend A. B. Fish was pastor at the time.
During the pastorate of Reverend C. O. Gordon, the church was again reorganized in 1953 and the foundation of the present chapel was laid in 1963. Association with the United Methodist Church began in 1968. According to the cornerstone, the present structure was completed circa 1992. Sarah Small, Jack Small, William D. Small, Sr., Henry Butler, Sr., Calvin Small, Sr., and Joseph Hamilton, Sr., were on the Building Committee.
Clinch Chapel Cemetery
The cemetery at Clinch Chapel contains more than a dozen vernacular memorials, including one of the Madonna monuments detailed here. The following photographs appear in no particular order but serve as examples of the variety of work present. As is the case with all such markers, environmental factors and the passage of time pose the greatest threat to their long-term survival. This is my main reason for documenting them, but I also find them beautiful and moving works of art and have the utmost respect for the love and devotion they represent.
Reverend Mungin’s headstone features three crosses and is wedge-shaped.
Luevenia Randolph (29 November 1886-1 May 1944). Ms. Randolph’s headstone is of a type found in numerous African-American and white cemeteries, especially rural locations, which simply use a stencil on a poured slab to identify the decedent. Not quite as common, though, are the applied symbols, including shaking hands, hands pointing to Heaven, bibles, and winged heads (cherubim).
The South Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church notes that this church near the Satilla River was…Organized before the Civil War, for years the congregation didn’t know its denomination. Following the Civil War, it was unused; several groups tried to buy it, but the Methodists succeeded. For a time it was also used as a school. The wooden building [no longer extant] was built in the early 1900s, and in 1973 the South Georgia Conference Work Team helped to begin a new concrete block building…It was the first Black-owned church in Camden County.
Aside from being among the oldest Black congregations in Camden County, Oak Hill is home to an important historic cemetery, which includes two of the Madonna monuments detailed here.
I recently documented an eclectic collection of Black cemetery monuments at three locations in Camden County with Cynthia Jennings. Remarkable testaments to African-American ingenuity, they date from the 1920s to the 1940s and are all in the form of a European version of the Madonna (Mary). [I have identified them as “African-American” because of their appropriation by these historic communities].
They appear to have been made using a cast, though all have slight variations. Whether made by a local funeral home or an individual, the monuments have at least one vernacular element: the handwritten identifications of the decedents. While some appear to be distinct, it’s more likely the effect of nearly a century of exposure to the elements.
A review of active black funeral homes in Camden County in the 1930s might be a clue as to their history. Chrissy Chapman has documented these amazing memorials, as well, and has located at least one more, in a plantation cemetery, which we hope to explore after hunting season. Chrissy’s photographs, made a few years ago, reveal a possible maker’s name, which I hope to share later.
It is my hope that by preserving these places photographically, they will be of some use to historians and genealogists in the future. It seems certain that they will all be unreadable within the next decade or so but they should be added to the growing list of important African-American vernacular landmarks in Georgia and celebrated as such.