The sacred ground on St. Simons known as Village Cemetery is one of the most important African-American burial grounds in Georgia. Closely watched over and maintained by the First African Baptist Church of St. Simons, it is the final resting place of countless souls who worked nearby plantations from the early 19th century to Emancipation, and their descendants. It should be noted that until World War II, and perhaps a bit later, African-Americans were much more numerous on St. Simons, living in various historical communities scattered around the island.
I found the cemetery by accident and was so moved by its beauty that I felt an urgency to document its most important monuments. Though there are countless unmarked and unknown burials, the oldest surviving section of the cemetery contains numerous vernacular headstones. These nationally significant treasures represent the resourcefulness and perhaps shed light on some of the traditions of the first and second generations of freedmen who remained on the island after emancipation. In early 19th century Georgia, slave burials were decorated with the last object used by the deceased. It is likely that the decorated graves in Village Cemetery are a continuation of that tradition. The cemetery is active so modern headstones and markers are also present.
I hope that the church or others with more knowledge of the cemetery’s history will work to have it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A survey was published by the Golden Isles Archaeology Society in 2000 and the cemetery has been documented on Findagrave. I am unable to share the location of the cemetery but those interested may wish to contact the First African Baptist Church.
In 1870, the Freedmen’s School was established as the first public school for African-Americans in Brunswick. Colored Memorial High School, designed by Cloister architect Francis L. Abreu, was built adjacent to the Freedmen’s School in 1923* and named to honor African-American veterans of World War I. The Freedmen’s School was replaced by Risley High School in 1936 and served the community until 1955 when a new Risley High School was built elsewhere. It was named Risley School, for Captain Douglas Gilbert Risley, who advocated for the school as the head of the Freedmen’s Bureau.
*- The 1922 date on the building is the date the cornerstone was laid by Dr. H. R. Butler.
The whole affair makes me angry but it’s nice to see this mural in the heart of Brunswick’s African-American community, on Albany Street. It was painted by Brunswick-born Miami artist Marvin Weeks and aims to educate and bring together all who deplore this inexcusable crime. The structure on which it is painted will soon become an African-American cultural center.
The Liberty County Historical Society recently noted on its website that William McKinley Walthour’s Union Brotherhood Society meeting hall near Midway was in eminent danger of collapsing. While doing some re-shoots in coastal Liberty County yesterday, I drove by the site and can now report that it has indeed collapsed.
This relic of the Jim Crow era was a great example of the strong fraternal bonds of the African-American community, required at the time for the common benefits white society often took for granted, such as burial insurance. Its loss is most unfortunate.
The Historical Society made an impassioned plea for saving the structure, but its loss illustrates the limitations faced by such organizations. Donations are often slow to materialize and in an extraordinarily challenging year like 2020, even more so.
Thomas Landing, on the South Newport River, has been occupied since the early days of Colonial Georgia and its history is indelibly linked to the hundreds of African-Americans who resided here. They first landed here against their will but after Emancipation chose to remain, only to have their land taken from them by the United States government in the 1930s.
The property surrounding this front gable bungalow has recently been cleared, suggesting it’s likely to soon be redeveloped. This is one of just a few surviving vernacular structures in the scattered community known as Jewtown. The community got its name from the Levison brothers, who had a thriving store about a mile east of Gascoigne Bluff. They called it Levisonton but the name didn’t stick and residents referred to the area as Jewtown. Like the other two historic African-American communities on St. Simons, Harrington and South End, Jewtown is largely indistinguishable from the rest of the island today. I believe the cottage dates to circa 1940-1945, making it a relatively late construction for the community.
This church was constructed between 1979-1983. Set in a beautiful grove of moss-draped oaks, its of a style typical among African-American congregations in Coastal Georgia. [“Carneghan” is likely the original spelling of the community, but it has been changed to “Carnigan” on modern maps.]