I made these photos in 2009; no one was living here when I was in the neighborhood earlier this summer. As a self-service ice house, and home to a welder, it served an important purpose in this community of fishermen. The owners were obviously on the honor system, but to make sure customers were honest, a decorative skeleton kept an eye on things. The “answers” part of the sign always got my attention. I imagine it had something to do with the telling of fortunes. This is a bigger deal in these parts than many like to admit.
This was the general store and boarding house of Peter Joseph, a leader of the historic Black community of South End on St. Simons Island. Built circa 1900, per the Glynn County Historic Resources Report , it was razed circa 2016. The only Peter Joseph I can locate on St. Simons was born in 1903 and died in 1966; if this is the same Peter Joseph, it would mean the store was built by someone else, perhaps a member of his family. I will attempt to update this if I can find out anything more.
These photographs were made in February 2015.
As the images confirm, the structure had long been abandoned when I photographed it. It was an important resource for a long lost community, so I’m glad I had the opportunity to document it.
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.
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.
These structures, likely built in the 1950s, were located behind Bennie’s Red Barn Restaurant in the historic Harrington community on St. Simons Island. They were lost to development by 2020.
My identification of the structures as apartment houses is tentative, as I have been unable to confirm anything about them. I have been told they were built for employees of Sea Island or that they may have been owned by the late Alonza Ramsey (c. 1932-2010), a legendary resident of the Harrington community whose Old Plantation Supper Club was a longtime favorite. I have no idea which, if either, is correct, but the layout of the houses would indicate company housing or rentals.
By the time I documented them in 2017, they appeared to have been abandoned for quite some time and were obviously returning to the elements.
The structures were utilitarian in design and represented modern and practical housing in the mid-20th century.
If I recall correctly, there were 5 or 6 buildings in the oak grove that dominated the neighborhood.
This was one of the largest remaining historic Black resources on St. Simons before it was demolished, even if it didn’t have the elements that many would consider worthy of preservation. Describing the loss of such places, Patrik Jonsson wrote in The Christian Science Monitor in 2002: Blacks once owned 86 percent of St. Simons, but now the small remaining settlements are intertwined with development roads and gated condos…Where small ramshackle villages once stood in the shade of giant live oaks, hacienda-style townhomes now crawl all the way up to the water.
I hope someone will reach out who knows more than I do about this place. There must be some great stories.
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.
This vernacular house form, once quite common, is endangered today on the coast. Though it was a widespread utilitarian form, in Coastal Georgia it’s often found in historic Geechee-Gullah communities. Similar examples survive on Sapelo Island, among other 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.