Preserving the past: Long lost cousins try to preserve abandoned slave cemetery in South Georgia

A network of cousins with roots in South Georgia is working to prevent old slave cemetery sites from being erased by wilderness or urbanization.
Published: Feb. 11, 2022 at 12:57 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 15, 2022 at 10:21 AM CST
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MORVEN, Ga. (WCTV) — There are thousands of people living across the United States who can all trace their roots back to the same ugly truth: They are descendants of slaves.

The only tangible family history many of them have exists in the form of old cemeteries. But many of those sites are at risk of being erased, either reclaimed by wilderness or threatened by urbanization. Now, a network of cousins with roots in South Georgia is working to prevent that from happening.

“This is the region in the 1800s, it was all Wiregrass territories,” Fannie Marie Jackson-Gibbs said, standing in a church cemetery in Morven.

A drive through the small Brooks County town would lead one to believe it is vanishing. A roughly 30-minute drive outside the city of Valdosta, the town has two full-time officers and a single grocery store. Farmland and abandoned buildings are abundant. It is where Jackson-Gibbs grew up. Her family homestead, now dilapidated and without a tenant, has been handed down for more than a century.

“In my 69th year, I’m back at that pond and I’m saying to daddy, ‘Daddy, I’m doing all I can to bring your ancestors home,’” she told WCTV’s Katie Kaplan.

On one of the coldest days in recent memory, she stood in the New Macedonia Baptist Church cemetery off Jackson Road. The small graveyard includes tombstones with epitaphs written by hand. It’s the final resting place of freed slaves and several people born in the mid-1800s.

However, the topic at hand is an even older cemetery where the church originally sat before it was accidentally burned down by the deacon, according to Jackson-Gibbs. This site is about a quarter-mile away, obscured by the thick Georgia forest. The land was sold off long ago.

“When I was a little girl they would take us down there,” she recalled, pointing to a forested island in the distance. “There are at least 100 tombstones of enslaved people in the woods back there.”

According to Jackson family oral history, it is the final resting place of some of the area’s first slaves, many of whom are believed to have labored while carving out historic Coffee Road about a mile away. It has since been reclaimed by the elements and is now surrounded by farmland on all sides.

The site is the basis for a non-profit she created in an effort to raise money to restore it. Macedonia Community Foundation, Inc. is a registered 501(c)(3), a cause that reaches far beyond the Brooks County line.

“We are literally all over the country and our roots are there in Georgia,” said Janet Elder, whose great-grandparents are buried in the old cemetery.

In a Zoom interview from her home in Virginia, she explained how Brand and Laura Spencer were charter members of the Baptist church and the patriarch and matriarch of an extended family tree that stretches to hundreds of people across the country.

“Brad and Laura had 16 children,” she said. “Those grandchildren have, what we’ve documented, at least 107 great-grandchildren and that’s my generation. The last one was born in 1966. So after that, it’s kind of exploded.”

Elder is a member of a private Facebook page that was created for descendants of enslaved families from Brooks County. Formed in Nov. 2021, it already has roughly 130 members — all of whom are likely related.

“I wanted to bring all the families back together again,” said page creator Kellinda Brown of Atlanta. “Some mysteries that I had were solved because of those that came into the group and shared information.”

Brown said it is a tool that has already helped to fill in some of the blanks from a time when most of her family members could not read or write. Oral histories, census records and the rare surviving photograph are shared amongst the members.

Modern genetic testing has also helped to fill in some of the missing information. Lynn Davis, another distant cousin from Atlanta, said many DNA-tracking services like 23andMe have helped to confirm connections, which stretches across the entire South Georgia region.

“Lowndes County, Brooks County, Thomas County, Decatur County, I just realized recently Colquitt County,” she said. “When I go back and I look at the DNA-wise, we are truly all connected and connected from slavery.”

DNA tracking has also helped to push past the proverbial “brick wall” and connected some of the families to distant relatives in Jamaica, Ghana and Haiti.

However, some of the only physical places left to connect them all are beginning to disappear.

“It is completely wooded, and it breaks my heart,” said Brown, about the Valdosta-area cemetery where her ancestors lie.

It is an issue that state officials said is abundant in Georgia, with more than 1,000 sites estimated to exist in the state alone.

“There are a large number of cemeteries across the state and some are, of course, venerated, and they’re marked and taken care of,” said Mark McDonald. president and CEO of the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. “But the vast majority of them are underserved, and there are some that are pretty much abandoned and no one’s looking after them at all.”

Currently, it is up to local counties, historical societies and volunteers to rectify as McDonald states “there is no public agency that looks after cemeteries.”

To complicate matters even further, restoring an old cemetery can be a costly problem to fix.

“Between repainting the fence and restoring the graves, it’s been at least $30,000 to $40,000,” said volunteer John Romine, who has been tackling Quitman’s West End Cemetery since 2014.

The site is only about 10-miles from Morven and includes many of the city’s founders and notable residents. His organization, The Committee for the Restoration of West End Cemetery, has raised thousands of dollars through community donations. In 2019, the group hired a company to conduct a survey to use Ground Penetrating Radar.

They expected to find about 10 unmarked graves but instead uncovered hundreds, including 473 in a field behind the cemetery, which was believed to have been dedicated to African Americans and the poor.

“The little dots, as you can see them, are the graves that they came up with,” Romine explained, pointing to a map of the GPR findings.

Every single grave has since been marked with a large metal stake and washer at the cost of $3.50 each. A cost that is well worth it to many.

“Going to those places where, you know, they are laid to rest means a lot to a lot of us,” said Brown, speaking generally about the issue. “It’s personal because these are our family members.”

Jackson-Gibbs said she received $1,500 from the Brooks County Garden Club in 2019, but the money quickly dried up after purchasing supplies and hiring a Valdosta State archeologist to survey the land. She is now hoping members of the Brooks County community will step in to help out even more.

“I’m asking every and anybody who is willing to help us do this — to help us,” she said.

Jackson-Gibbs said she is disabled, but would like help to clear out the overgrowth that has overtaken the old church cemetery and install a new fence around it so that future generations can visit, and she can keep that promise she made to her dad.

There is currently no law or funding in place to help with restoring, preserving and maintaining abandoned cemeteries in Georgia, so it is up to local communities and volunteers to step in.

In Florida, the legislature recently created a task force that has been commissioned to look at the issue and decide how to move forward with each site in the Sunshine State. However, that is not the case in Georgia. There is, however, a Peach State law that prohibits landowners from disturbing cemeteries and preventing people from visiting them.

On the national level, there has been some movement as well. The ‘African-American Burial Grounds Network Act’ would put the National Park Service in charge of such places and allocate funding to maintain them. It passed the Senate in Dec. 2020, but has been listed as “held at desk” ever since.

The Black Cemetery Network is also working independently to track sites important to African American history. The old Macedonia Baptist Church Cemetery in Morven and the West End Cemetery in Quitman have not yet been listed.

To connect with Jackson-Gibbs about how to help in Morven, please email FMJGibbs@gmail.com.

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