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.
Three historic cemeteries (and two non-historic) are associated with the property around Central State Hospital, but without the efforts of employees who felt the lives of those who lived and died on these grounds deserved a dignified resting place, they would have most likely been lost to neglect. This post will focus on Cedar Lane Cemetery, which was historically known as the Asylum Cemetery. Within its 18+ acres are marble grave markers dating back as far as 1854. The exact date the cemetery was begun is unknown, but it was likely the late 1840s or early 1850s. The earliest burials of institutionalized people of the State Lunatic Asylum (as Central State Hospital was known at the time) were in Memory Hill Cemetery.
Thanks to the efforts of Bud Merritt and numerous volunteers, these metal “headboard markers” have been righted after many were buried over the years by bad management practices. I have talked extensively with Mr. Merritt about the process of “recovering” the cemetery and though he seeks no publicity for this enormous task, his insight and subsequent work on having the Central State Cemeteries added to the National Register of Historic Places, was crucial to their survival. Some of the markers are in their correct places, while others are not. All the markers feature a number that corresponded to a patient or prisoner’s name. It is a somber display, but makes one think of the conditions of those souls who spent large parts of their lives here.
At this time, I believe Cedar Lane is the only accessible of the Central State cemeteries. Typical of the time, African-American residents of Central State were segregated, even in death, and were buried in a cemetery of similar appearance.
As part of the process of reclaiming this sacred ground, a statue was commissioned and stands at the end of the lane of cedar trees which give the cemetery its modern name.
It was created by a prominent sculptor who did commissions for U. S. presidents and other important figures. [I will update with a name soon].
Central State Cemeteries, National Register of Historic Places
The headstone marking the final resting place of Elizabeth “Lizzie” Jackson (15 January 1850-15 March 1883) in the African-American section of Memory Hill is worthy of special mention as a singular work of art. More importantly, it serves as validation that the influence of artistic movements generally associated with White communities also reached African-Americans. As headstones go it’s quite diminutive, scarcely a foot-and-a-half in height, but its visual appeal is unmistakable.
Lizzie Jackson was likely born into the institution of slavery and, though little is known of her life, research by Cynthia Jennings found that she was living at the time of the 1870 Census on Franklin Street, the same street Memory Hill Cemetery is located on. This section of town was predominately African-American well into the 20th century. Lizzie resided at the time with a Susan Palmer, who may have been her mother or grandmother. She was married and had a son (Randall) and daughter.
Dutch Henderson has studied this marker, and a couple others which have since been removed from the cemetery. The “missing” markers are similar to this this one and all feature a sunflower. They are all believed to have been accomplished as “side jobs” by an employee of the McMillan Brick Works of Milledgeville. This example is signed [R.J], which may represent Lizzie’s son, Randall. He would have had the schooling necessary to write the words. Lizzie’s husband and son were both involved in the brick industry at the McMillan Works.
As to the importance of artistic influence, the patterns draw heavily upon the emerging Arts and Crafts movement of the early 1880s. The movement focused on natural forms and the sunflower is among its notable icons. The top of the marker is “diapered”, a term for brick made with a repeating diamond pattern.
Vines and flowers were recurring themes of the movement, as well, especially in the patterns of William Morris, one of its most influential artist/designers.
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).
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.
Hoboes were ubiquitous characters in the American landscape of the late 19th and early-mid 20th centuries. They were often depicted as bums and were the bane of the railroad police at various times, but many were simply vagabonds who had fallen on hard times and ostensibly began their journeys in search of work. Local legend holds that one such hobo, Campbell Johnston (24 January 1874-15 December 1905), fell from a train one night and died at this site. Local officials took care of his burial and his headstone was donated by the Woodmen of the World. It seems odd that such a character would have been afforded this memorial, and therefore, his story would be fascinating to track down.
The gravesite is located within the Satilla River Waterfront Park.
Though the headstone pictured above is the most unique in the cemetery, I have chosen to document the site due to its considerable collection of vernacular headstones. Ebenezer (spelled Ebernezer on the sign) is actually two cemeteries, located off Churchill Road near I-95. A fenced section is the white cemetery while the surrounding larger cemetery is the domain of African-Americans, a few of whom were born into slavery and others who represent the first generation after emancipation. The African-American section is what is represented here.
The predominant vernacular form in this cemetery is the homemade star-adorned headstone, a locally made type that is well-represented in the nearby Gould Cemetery at Harris Neck. It’s possible that all of these were the work of the same maker. They follow in no particular order but many of the examples are memorials for the Thorpe family.
This well-maintained African-American cemetery contains a collection of vernacular headstones of statewide importance, both as artifacts of ingenuity in the face of adversity and as sacred ground to the loved ones of those interred here. Thanks to Cynthia Jennings for making me aware of the site. Smith Grove [Smiths or Smith’s in some references] members made the best of what was available to them, which was typical of rural congregations. Many of the memorials are nearly unreadable*, but consider that at the time they were made, most rural African-American schools were grossly underfunded and were barely able to provide the basics of an education, and the makers of these were likely “drawing” the letters as opposed to writing them. I believe Smith Grove Cemetery should be on the National Register of Historic Places.
*-All names and dates that follow are presumed to be correct but the nature of the script makes it difficult to be completely accurate
There are four triangular memorials, likely all accomplished by the same maker. Dates on Findagrave for these stones are not completely accurate. The way the numbers are positioned makes it nearly impossible to determine an actual date, in most cases.
The only information I’ve been able to locate on the history of Wesley Chapel, located in the forgotten community of Beatrice, is that it was established in 1838.
That date comes from the old South Georgia Conference-provided sign at the front of the church. The sign is of a type used by the conference in the 1930s-1940s or thereabouts.
An architectural survey dates the present structure to 1890. The stained glass windows appear to be later additions.
Perhaps as interesting as the church itself is the historic cemetery which lies adjacent to the structure. The earliest burials I noted dated to the early 1840s. The cemetery affords excellent views of the surrounding countryside and is characterized by two large enclosures made of local stone. They are great examples of early vernacular funerary architecture.
The shady respite of the Sims Plot is enclosed by a local stone fence, abundant with Resurrection Fern.
The plot of pioneer Thomas Turner House [18 April 1787-14 June 1851] & Elizabeth Young House [20 Jun 1787-5 December 1863] and family is made of local red stone and is a massive enclosure.
A gate once guarded the plot but is long gone.
The fence was well built and has survived largely intact, though this section has collapsed. It is likely descendants have made repairs over the years.