Tag Archives: Georgia Pioneers

Sunbury Cemetery, 1758, Liberty County

Laid out in St. John’s Parish in 1758 on land originally owned by Mark Carr, Sunbury soon drew comparisons to Savannah as one of Georgia’s great seaports. Nearly 500 lots (not all occupied) were situated around three squares: King’s, Church, and Meeting.

St. John’s Parish fervently supported opposition to British rule and urged the rest of Georgia to revolt. Savannah was hesitant, so the parish sent Dr. Lyman Hall, a citizen of Sunbury, to the 2nd Continental Congress as a non-voting delegate. When Georgia at last joined the revolution, Dr. Hall, Button Gwinnett, and George Walton were chosen as the official delegates and signed the Declaration of Independence. Fort Morris was constructed for the defense of Sunbury but fell to the British during the Revolutionary War. Many of the pioneer families left during the occupation.

In 1777 St. John’s Parish and the neighboring St. Andrew’s and St. James were combined to form Liberty County. On 18 November 1783 the first session of the Superior Court of Liberty County was held in Sunbury and it remained the county seat until removal to Riceboro in 1797.

Sunbury Academy, established in 1788, was one of the most prominent schools in early Georgia. A Baptist church was organized in 1810 and held services into the 1830s. But the community was already in decline. The Hurricane of 1804 and the Hurricane of 1824 did major damage to the area, dispersing the remaining population. It was a ghost town by the 1840s and nothing remains today except the cemetery. Many stones have been lost or destroyed over time, some due to storms and others to residential development.

Tomb of Reverend William McWhir, D. D. [9 September 1759-31 January 1851] & Mary McWhir [27 September 1757-16 December 1819]

Dr. McWhir, a devout Presbyterian who migrated to Georgia from Belfast, Ireland, was one of the founders and the Principal of Sunbury Academy for 30 years. He died at the home of Roswell King.

Tomb of Josiah Powell [?-21 July 1788]

The exquisite ironwork surrounding the Dunham family plot is a work of art in itself. Family genealogy suggests headstones are replacements for earlier markers, dating to around 1900. The fence was likely installed at that time, as well.

The Dunhams were prominent citizens of the area and many remained even after Sunbury’s decline. Reverend Jacob Dunham, who died in 1832, spent ten years as a missionary for the Sunbury Baptist Association, ministering mostly to slaves.

Thomas H. Dunham [1840-12 October 1870] Though Dunham was a later burial, his willow and headstone tympanum was likely a nod to the earlier settlers, whose stones were commonly marked in this fashion.

Eliza Ann Richardson [1820-23 October 1831] Eliza Ann was the daughter of Edmond & Elizabeth Richardson. Her slate headstone features a willow and urn tympanum.

This plot is the final resting place of the Law & Fleming families and their relatives.

Reverend Josiah S. Law [1808-4 October 1853]

Reverend Samuel Spry Law [1774-4 February 1837] Spry’s mother, whose maiden name was also Spry, successfully defended her home from the British during the Revolutionary War. Law received his most formal education while living with the family of a French Marquis on Sapelo Island. He was married three times, first to Mary Anderson, then to Rebecca G.  Hughes, and finally to Temperance Wood.

In 1811, Reverend Law was a captain of the local militia. He became a Baptist in 1815. In his final years, he preached to poor whites and slaves in rural sections of Liberty County.

Mrs. Temperance  Wood Law [1780-16 October 1857] Last consort of Reverend S. S. Law. (Per genealogy, her name is apparently misspelled on her headstone).

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under -LIBERTY COUNTY, Sunbury GA

Hamilton Plantation Slave Cabin, Circa 1806, St. Simons Island

Built for servants working in the main house of James Hamilton’s Gascoigne Bluff plantation, this slave cabin is one of four surviving on St. Simons. Two more survive on the lands of the former Hamilton Plantation. As evidenced by this authentic restoration, house slaves were generally kept in nicer dwellings than field hands and other laborers. Popularly known as The Tabby House, it was restored by Eugene Lewis in 1931 and again in 1995 by master tabby craftsmen J. Felton Tate, Sr., Renaldo Tate, Sr., and Renaldo Tate, Jr.. After the plantation house burned in the 1890s, a lumber mill was located on the property for many years. The cabin served as a doctor’s office during that era. Today, it is part of the Epworth By The Sea campus of the South Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church and is used as an event space.

National Register of Historic Places

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Filed under -GLYNN COUNTY, St. Simons Island GA

Dorchester Presbyterian Church, 1854, Liberty County

Midway Congregational Church, founded in 1754 and a seat of power in the Colonial period, was associated with three satellite congregations known as retreats, because their locations, slightly more inland than Midway, offered a respite from the malarial swamps of the coast. The last of the retreat churches to be established was located at Dorchester. Its origins can be traced to nearby Sunbury, a short-lived boom town founded in 1758 whose trustees were members of Midway Church. Sunbury thrived nearly from its inception, rivaling Savannah in commercial importance, but its proximity to Fort Morris lead to its capture and subsequent burning by British troops during the American Revolution. While many such casualties of the war recuperated, Sunbury never seemed to regain its prominence after the devastating four-year occupation that followed. The hurricane of 1824 and a yellow fever epidemic sent many of its residents scattering into the nearby countryside. Huge plantations with names like Laurel Grove, Arcadia, Melon Bluff, Cedar Point, and Palmyra were emerging in the countryside around old Sunbury. In 1843 upon the suggestion of Reverend Thomas Sumner Winn, a tutor for prominent Presbyterian minister Charles Colcock Jones, a site was chosen for a retreat between Sunbury and Midway. It was originally known simply as “the Village,” but was soon christened Dorchester, in tribute to the heritage of its citizens. Some families built summer homes at Dorchester, though many tore down their dwellings near Sunbury and rebuilt them on the higher and drier ground the retreat afforded. As this new location was only six miles from Midway, the idea of building a church was not initially entertained, though an academy was built in which Sunday school was regularly taught. By 1854, with the continuing decline in membership at Midway, the families of the village built a permanent church, which still stands today. The old town bell from Sunbury, dated 1799, was placed in the steeple. The land was donated by Bartholomew Busby, who owned the nearby Melon Bluff Plantation. At first it was used only in summer, but by the onset of the Civil War was in regular use. The church was officially recognized by the Savannah Presbytery in 1871 and named Dorchester Presbyterian Church. The church holds services on the first Sunday of each month at 5 PM.

National Register of Historic Places

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Glen Echo, Circa 1773, Bryan County

Also known as the Bird-Everett-Morgan House, Glen Echo is the oldest house in Bryan County, and among the oldest in Georgia. The land on which it stands was part of a 400-acre king’s grant made to Abraham & Israel Bird and Hugh Bryan on 1 January 1771. Family lore suggests that construction on the house began in 1773. [While it’s unclear who built the house, an article by descendant and historian Kenneth Dillon Dixon in a 2014 issue of Richmond Hill Reflections notes: …it was likely built by Burgund Bird, as it descended to his son Sylvanus Bird’s family and it was built on land granted to his other son, Abraham Bird]. The Birds were millers and may have selected the land due to its proximity to two creeks. One of the creeks came to be known as Birds Mill Creek (now Mill Creek) and the other was Black Creek. By 1802, Andrew Bird, Sr., was in possession of the house. He had three sons, Andrew, Jackson, and Cyrus, and a daughter, Isabel. Isabel married a Salzburger descendant  named Joshua Smith in 1824.

Captain Albert Glenn Smith – Bryan Independent Riflemen, Tintype, 1861-3. Courtesy Kenneth Dillon Dixon

It was their son, Albert Glenn Smith, who eventually received the house and property from his mother’s bachelor uncles in the 1850s. At the time of his marriage to Elizabeth Van Brackle in 1858, Smith moved into the house and the moniker “Glen Echo” came into use. Twin sons were born to the couple around this time. At the outset of the Civil War, Smith owned 17 slaves and his estate was valued at nearly $10,000. A. G. Smith was a captain of the Bryan Independent Riflemen, 1st Company, 25th Georgia Volunteer Infantry and trained soldiers at nearby Fort McAllister. When Sherman’s troops made their approach to Savannah, breastworks were constructed on the property and though the house was spared, all of the outbuildings were burned and livestock set free. To a student of the Civil War, the survival of the house might seem quite extraordinary, but actually, orders mandated that only unoccupied houses be burned. At any rate, Captain Bird’s military prominence should have made his property a prime target. A. G. & Elizabeth Bird had ten children, the last of whom was born in 1876. Their heirs still own the property and maintain the historic family cemetery adjacent to the house.

THE HOUSE IS LOCATED ON PRIVATE PROPERTY & TRESPASSING IS FORBIDDEN.

The Plantation Plain appearance of the Glen Echo is generally advanced as evidence of the house being later than 1773, but 18th-century examples of this style do exist in the Carolinas. Numerous changes have been made to the house in its nearly 250-year history and most of the original structure has been obscured by additions and alterations. This is often the case with properties of such an age and it doesn’t deter from their historical significance and local importance. Interior details on the first floor are said to confirm the 18th-century construction date, especially the presence of iron HL hinges on some doors. “Shed rooms” were located at the rear of the house in its early incarnation, but as seen in the image above, an elongated attached kitchen replaced them at some point.

The boxed cornice and returns, seen above, likely date to the early 19th century, and the brick chimney, replacing a stick-and-mud example, is thought to have been added around the turn of the last century. Outlines of earlier shutters indicate that different windows were in use, and the front porch is definitely a later addition.

Today, this property is endangered by neglect and isolation. After speaking with the legal representative for the property owner, I’m confident that restoration is in its future. Theft and vandalism have plagued the house in recent years, I’m told, and this is a real tragedy. To say that a house connected to one family in Georgia for nearly 250 years is of utmost importance is an understatement. The subjects of the following photos, also shared by Kenneth Dillon Dixon, are unidentified descendants of the Bird family, probably made between 1910-1930; he notes they’re definitely Mingledorfs, Morgans, or Smiths.

Bird Descendants at Glen Echo, 1920s-30s? – Courtesty Kenneth Dillon Dixon

Old Oak at Glen Echo, 1930s? – Courtesty Kenneth Dillon Dixon

National Register of Historic Places

 

 

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Flemington Presbyterian Church, 1852

Flemington Presbyterian was the second of the Midway retreat churches. It remains the most active of all the congregations associated with Midway Congregational Church. In 1815, Midway member William Fleming established Gravel Hill, a retreat in the pinelands of Liberty County. Like the settlers of Walthourville before them, the people who came to Gravel Hill established a more permanent presence as time passed. For many summers, worship services were held in homes and then in a log structure which also housed a magistrate court. The first permanent church was built in 1832 on land given by Simon Fraser and was used for twenty years. The church followed the organization of Midway and was seen as a branch, not a mission, of Midway. In 1850 the name of the retreat was changed to Flemington in honor of William Fleming. A new home for the old Gravel Hill church was constructed between 1851 and 1852, and one of the selectmen of the congregation, T. Q. Cassels, was the architect. Though an amateur, he was well read in classical civilization and its monuments. The impressive steeple, to this day the pride of the congregation, was built by member Irwin Rahn. By the end of the Civil War, those who had settled in Flemington found the ten-mile trip to Midway nearly impossible, sought and were granted independence. In the spring of 1866, they officially adopted Presbyterianism. Upholding Puritan values of good education, a school was established, known by the 1830s as the Tranquill Institute. Confederate, then Union soldiers, used the old school as a hospital in 1864, and three of the Union casualties are buried in the Flemington cemetery. By the Victorian era, the Flemington Musical Society’s influence on popular entertainment in the area illustrates the shift away from Puritan roots toward a more secular society.

National Register of Historic Places

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Laurel Grove Cemetery, 1853, Savannah

Set aside from the old Springfield Plantation lands of the Stiles family in 1850 to meet Savannah’s burgeoning need for new burial grounds, Laurel Grove* was officially dedicated by Henry Rootes Jackson at a ceremony  in 1852 and opened for burials in 1853. The cemetery was so popular that it was deemed “full” by the early years of the 20th century and closed to new burials. As a result, it contains one of the largest concentrations of Victorian-era funerary sculpture and ornamentation in the state. It fell into a terrible state of disrepair for decades but preservation efforts, sometimes contentious, in recent years have vastly improved its apppearnce.

*To distinguish the white and black sections, divided by the I-16 connector, the terms North and South are used today. The white section is referred to as Laurel Grove North Cemetery.

Many famous Savanniahans rest here, including: Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girls Scouts; James Lord Pierpont, author of Jingle Bells; and famed Jewish Confederate nurse Phoebe Pember. Also present are an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court (James Moore Wayne), cabinet members, United States Senators and Representatives, at least two dozen Savannah mayors, eight Confederate generals, a Union General, namesakes of numerous Georgia counties and towns, and a Bishhop of the Episcopal Church (Stephen Elliott) who was also the only Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America. Most of these are not included in the post at the present time but will be added soon.

Perhaps the most-visited memorial in Laurel Grove is not of any celebrity but rather this Cararra marble angel marking the final resting place of Louisa Porter. This work by Italian sculptor A. Caniparoli has drawn admirers since it was installed and continues to wow to this day.

Louisa Porter (8 May 1807-5 August 1888)

Louisa Porter’s father, Dr. Adam Alexander emigrated from Inverness, Scotland, to the United States in 1776. He served the Colonial Army as a surgeon during the Revolutionary War. Her mother, Louisa Frederika Schmidt, was German. Louisa was born in Liberty County in 1807, following an older brother, Adam. In 1824, she married Anthony Porter, president of the Bank of Georgia. Though she had no children, Louisa was quite dedicated to philantrhopic efforts, especially those involving children. Over the years she served on the board of the Savannah Free School and as the director the Savannah Female Society. Her greatest contribution, perhaps, was her role in the creation of the Industrial Relief Society and Home for the Friendless. Upon her death, much of her wealth went to the society and its name was changed to the Louisa Porter Home for Girls.

George W. Martus (31 May 1861-24 June 1940) and Florence M Martus (7 August 1868-8 February 1943)

Florence and brother George Martus were the lighthouse keepers on Elba Island in the Savannah River for 35 years. Florence will forever remembered by Savanniahans as “The Waving Girl” and has been memorialized by a popular statue on the downtown riverfront. A Georgia Historical Commission marker (at another location) reads: For 44 years, Florence Martus lived on…Elba Island with her brother, the lighthouse keeper, and no ship arrived for Savannah or departed from 1887 to 1931 without her waving a handkerchief by day or a lantern by night. Throughout the years, the vessels in return watched for and saluted this quiet little woman. Few people ever met her yet she became the source of romantic legends when the story of her faithful greetings was told in ports all over the world. After her retirement, the Propeller Club of Savannah, in honor of her seventieth birthday, sponsored a celebration on Cockspur Island. A Liberty ship, built in Savannah in 1943, was named for her.

 

Othelia Strasser Forrest (15 November 1875-11 December 1905)

Henry C. Heuisler (10 November 1849-24 July 1901)

This monument depicting a weeping widow was placed by Emma Getz Heuisler (1857-1938) after the loss of her husband.

Elizabeth “Bessie” Brown Fetzer (1868-1896) and Laura Fetzer (1878-1904)

Robert Clifford Fetzer (?-20 February 1920) placed this memorial to honor both of his wives.

The Jewish section is quite large, reflecting a prosperous community with roots reaching back as far as the founding of Georgia. The Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life notes: By the time of Oglethorpe’s landing, the Jews were already on the way. Apparently, the Jewish community of London seemed just as eager to dispose themselves of their own dependent citizenry, and in 1732 a committee of prominent Jewish Londoners organized a ship to transport their financially strapped brethren across the Atlantic, out of sight and off the community dole.

The William and Sarah, chock full of 42 Hebrews, left London the following January, a month before Oglethorpe had even set foot in the New World. After a perilous journey, the ship finally reached Savannah on July 11, 1733. Upon their disembarking, Savannah instantly became the site of the largest Jewish settlement in the New World. Although the colony’s trustees were unhappy with the appearance of Jews in Savannah, James Oglethorpe welcomed them with equanimity and optimism. He defended his decision by pointing out that the Georgia charter only excluded Catholics and slaves, and made no reference to Jewish settlers.

The passengers aboard the William and Sarah were largely of Sephardic descent, with a smaller population of German Jews. The eight German Jews consisted of Benjamin and Perla Sheftall, a man named Jacob Yowel, and the brothers Abraham and Simon Minis and their families. The Sephardic immigrants included Dr. Samuel Nunes Ribiero, a prominent physician who arrived with his family. Dr. Ribiero was not fleeing poverty, but persecution. When the Portuguese Inquisition returned with a vengeance in 1720, Dr. Ribiero and others who secretly preserved their Jewish identity fled the country in large numbers. Dr. Ribiero and his family left for London, and from there secured passage to Savannah.

 

Lena Ehrlich (15 May 1820-13 August 1884)

Henry Rothschild

Ornamental ironwork abounds in Laurel Grove. Oaks and acorns are among the most common themes.

This section of Laurel Grove contains the remains of over one hundred men who died in battle at Gettysburg in 1863. Their bodies were brought to Savannah after a ladies’ memorial society raised money for proper burials.

The dead are watched over by “Silence”, a statue originally placed in a gazebo beside the Confederate monument in Forsyth Park, but removed to Laurel Grove to placate ladies who felt she looked as if she were in a cage.

The old Confederate Veterans Association of Savannah likely placed this memorial around the turn of the last century. A carronade cannon said to have seen service during the 1864 Siege of Savannah rested here for many years. The cannon was removed to Fort Jackson by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1990.

Dr. Samuel A. T. Lawrence (?-11 October 1860) and family.

Gilmer-Minis Family Pavilion

Louisa Frederica Alexander Gilmer  (9 June 1824-19 November 1895)

Louisa Gilmer was the wife of Confederate Major General Jeremy Francis Gilmer (1818-1883), Chief of the Confederate Corps of Engineers, and was the sister of Confederate Brigadier General Edward Porter Alexander.

Margaret Marshall (1841 or 1842-26 May 1866)

Elizabeth Wyman Westberry (13 November 1916-11 January 1918)

Reverend Willard Preston (29 May 1785-26 April 1856)

Enduring examples of all manner of Victorian funerary art are found throughout Laurel Grove.

Selected Mausolea of Laurel Grove

William Clark (1791 or 1792-30 October 1872)

Captain Joseph Samuel Claghorn (22 January 1817-8 April 1879) and family.

Captain Claghorn was born in Norwich, Connecticut, and came with his family to Savannah in 1827. In 1846 he married Sarah Campbell Hunter. Claghorn was elected Captain of the Chatham Artillery in 1856, a post he held until 1862.

Francis Sorrel (4 May 1793-5 May 1870) and family, including Confederate Brigadier General Gilbert Moxley Sorrel (23 February 1838-10 August 1901).

William Wright (10 March 1817-4 December 1860)

Thanks to Bill Harrison, 3rd great nephew of William Wright for the information. He notes that originally the crypt had a glass door through which my mother viewed his body many time, especially the large gold watch & chain across his midsection; however, grave robbers broke the glass door and looted the graves. The wooden door was the replacement.

William Seabrook Lawton (1824-1893) and family.

Lawton was the brother of Confederate Brigadier General Alexander Robert Lawton, and Captain Edward Payson Lawton, who died from wounds received at the Battle of Fredericksburg.

The tall Gothic spires on the Lawton mausoleum are being restored.

Richard Farr Williams (1785-1838) and family.

John Henry Haupt (23 August 1780-?) and family

Isaac William Morrell (1794-23 January 1865) and family.

George Anderson (1767-1847) and family.

Dr. William Richard Waring (23 February 1827-26 November 1889) and family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under -CHATHAM COUNTY, Savannah GA

Laurel Grove South Cemetery, 1853, Savannah

Laurel Grove South Cemetery is the final resting place of numerous African-American pioneers associated with the history of Savannah. It was created on the site of the former Springfield Plantation to address the fact that by the early 1850s, nearly all of the city’s burying grounds were nearing capacity. Originally just four acres, the cemetery now sprawls over ninety and is still in use.

Reverend Andrew Bryan (c. 1737-6 October 1812) and Deacon Sampson Bryan (c. 1746-23 January 1799)

Among the most prominent memorials are those to the early leaders of African-American churches in Savannah.

Andrew Bryan, his wife Hannah, Kate Hogg, and Hagar Simpson, were among the first converts of George Liele, a slave who had converted to Christianity in the church of his master, Henry Sharp. Liele organized the First Colored Baptist Church of Savannah (later First African Baptist) in December 1777, was the first African-American to be ordained and the first Baptist missionary of any race to go to a foreign country. In 1782 he fled with his Loyalist master to Jamaica; Andrew Bryan assumed leadership of his growing First Colored Baptist congregation. Bryan and his brother Sampson were beaten and imprisoned for their preaching, but the intervention of their owner allowed them a degree of religious freedom. Bryan was ordained a Baptist minister in 1788. Soon thereafter, he purchased his and his family members’ freedom. Ironically, he grew relatively wealthy from a hauling business made successful by his ownership of slaves during the 1790s. He preached until his death in 1812 and is consider the father of the First Bryan Baptist Church by that congregation. The early overlapping histories of these congregations is somewhat conflicting.

There is some debate as to whether their remains were actually moved from the Old Negro Burial Ground near Whitefield Square and reinterred here, but their graves serve as a memorial to their integral part in the rich history of Savannah’s African-American community.

Reverend Henry Cunningham (1759-29 March 1842), Betsey Cunningham (1740-14 July 1838) and Reverend Andrew Cox Marshall (1755-7 December 1856)

Henry Cunningham was a free man of color, slaveowner and a prominent entrepreneur in early Savannah. He was a founder and the first pastor of the Second African Baptist Church.

Samuel Carey (November 1814-25 December 1842);  Samuel L. Carey, Jr. (February 1841-2 March 1861); John Henry Carey (January 1842-2 July 1843); Clemon Sabatty, Sr. (1784-6 October 1856); Infant son of Samuel (Jr.) & Lucy Carey (20 July-25 July 1861). [H. E. Carey is noted as the wife of Samuel Carey, but is not interred here; Lucy Carey is noted as the wife of Samuel, Jr., but is also not interred here].

Robert Verdier (4 January 1812-25 March 1864); Ceasar Verdier (1820-3 March 1864)- Ceasar was a deacon of the First African Baptist Church.; Elizabeth Verdier (12 May 1810-15 June 1866); William Verdier (30 October 1831-14 June 1855)

[Various spellings can of the surname, including Verdire, and Verdere, are present on the memorials, but Verdier seems to be the correct spelling, via genealogical records].

Andrew Martelle Monroe (Barely discernible dates on the slab inside the tomb appear to be 1906 and 1907, indicating this was possibly built to memorialize a very young child; another headstone is visible inside the tomb but I was unable to read it).

Reverend William J. Campbell (1 January 1814, though records state 1812-11 October 1880). Maxwell was born a slave in Savannah, baptised by Reverend Andrew C. Marshall in 1830, and was freed by his mistress, Mrs. Mary Maxwell, in 1849. He was licensced to preach in 1855 and served as an assitant to Reverend Marshall until the former’s death in 1857. Subsequently, Campbell became the fourth pastor of the First African Baptist Church. Reverend Marshall was quite progressive, replacing the wooden church building with the brick one which stand to this day. He was also on of 20 black clergymen invited to meet with General William T. Sherman on 12 January 1865.The meeting was an effort on Sherman’s part to address the needs and concerns of African-Americans after the end of the war. As a result of the meeting, Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, which came to be known as “40 Acres and a Mule”.

Samuel Gordon Morse (25 July 1832-24 November 1875); Patience Mary Morse (1830-30 November 1903); Samuel Benjamin Morse (6 December 1852-30 May 1909). The Morses came to Savannah from McIntosh County during the Civil War after liberation by Union soldiers. Samuel Gordon Morse served as First Sergeant in the 1st South Carolina Infantry, United States Colored Troops.

Captain E. Seabrook (6 November 1868-14 January 1920), obelisk; and Reverend J. F. Quarterman (7 November 1852-5 November 1916)

Thomas James Davis, MD. (1866-1903). Davis was a native of Jamaica and a Mason.

The All-Seeing Eye of God, also known as the Eye of Providence, present on the side of his headstone indicates a Masonic connection.

John H. Davis (8 March 1875-12 June 1916); Clara L. Davis (27 September 1867-27 August 1914) 

The Davis memorial is one of the most accomplished in Laurel Grove South and includes the statue and winged death heads, enclosed in formal coping.

Westley Wallace “W.W” Law (1 January 1923-29 July 2002)

W. W. Law was a giant of the Civil Rights Movement in Savannah, known locally as “Mr. Civil Rights”. The history that follows was written by Charles J. Elmore for the New Georgia Encyclopedia.

Westley Wallace Law was the only son and the oldest of the three children born to Geneva Wallace and Westley Law. He came from a poor family and began working at the age of ten to help his mother after his father died. He never married. Later on he credited his success in life to his mother and to Lillie Belle Wallace, his grandmother, who instilled in him a love for reading and social justice. He was also inspired by his mentor, Ralph Mark Gilbert, pastor of the First African Baptist Church, who revived the local branch of the Savannah NAACP; and he admired John S. Delaware, his boyhood scoutmaster, who was a Savannah NAACP official. In high school, as a member of the NAACP Youth Council, Law protested segregation at Savannah’s Grayson Stadium and worked for the hiring of a black disc jockey at a white-owned local radio station. Later in college he served as president of the NAACP Youth Council. Law often stated that he would not have received a college degree if Georgia State College (now Savannah State University), where he enrolled in 1942, were not in Savannah.His mother did washing and ironing for white families for very low wages, and there was no money to send Law to college. He worked at the white YMCA in Savannah to finance his education. After completing his freshman year Law was drafted into the army to serve in World War II (1941-45). Upon his discharge the GI Bill paid for the rest of his education at Georgia State College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biology.

For many years Law served as the scoutmaster of Troop 49, First Bryan Baptist Church, where he also taught Sunday school. He worked for the U.S. Postal Service as a mail carrier for more than forty years before retiring in the 1990s. In 1950 Law became president of the Savannah NAACP. In 1962, with the Reverend L. Scott Stell, chair of the NAACP Education Committee, and others, he brought a lawsuit against the segregation of Savannah–Chatham County public schools before the U.S. District Court. U.S. district judge Frank Scarlett held the petition so long that the student plaintiffs graduated from high school. The NAACP then had to refile the case, citing a new group of black children. Law and the NAACP refiled, and in 1964 the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered public schools in Savannah to be desegregated.

In the 1960s Law began to lead weekly mass meetings at two Savannah churches, Bolton Street Baptist and St. Philip A.M.E., where he advocated passive resistance to segregation. On March 16, 1960, Carolyn Quilloin, a NAACP Youth Council member, was arrested for asking to be served at the Azalea Room lunch counter at Levy’s department store in downtown Savannah. This protest led to others. Law led wade-ins at Tybee Beach and sit-ins at Kress and Woolworth’s lunch counters with NAACP youth workers. He also led an eighteen-month boycott of Broughton Street merchants that forced Savannah’s white leaders to compromise on civil rights.

Law believed that nonviolent means were the best way to open the city for blacks. He strongly opposed night marches favored by Hosea Williams and his Chatham County Crusade for Voters, believing the night marches allowed people with violent agendas to take to the city’s streets. The Crusade for Voters, headed by Williams, was a separate civil rights organization that was allied with the NAACP. This difference in strategic approach caused a rift between Law’s NAACP and Williams’s Chatham County Crusade for Voters. The rift between Law and Williams prompted Williams and others to leave the NAACP and join forces with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

In 1960 Malcolm Maclean became Savannah’s mayor. Maclean worked with Law and Eugene Gadsden, then the NAACP’s legal counsel, and credited them for keeping violence out of Savannah’s civil rights struggle. Under Maclean, public libraries and store lunch counters were integrated. Signs designating racially separate facilities at city– and county-owned buildings came down. These triumphs came at considerable personal cost for Law, who was fired from his job at the U.S. Post Office in 1961 because of his civil rights activities. National NAACP leaders and President John F. Kennedy came to his defense, however, and a three-member appeals board reinstated him.

Law retired as Savannah NAACP president in 1976, after serving for twenty-six years. He then turned his attention to the preservation of African American history and historic buildings. He established the Savannah-Yamacraw Branch of the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History (ASALH). Law founded the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum in honor of his boyhood mentor and pastor, Ralph Mark Gilbert, who revived the Savannah chapter of the NAACP and is considered to be the father of the civil rights movement in that city. As president of ASALH, he established the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum, Negro Heritage Trail Tour, King-Tisdell Cottage Museum, and the Beach Institute of African American Culture.

Law received honorary doctorates from Savannah College of Art and Design (1997) and Savannah State University (2000), the Distinguished Georgian Award (1998) from the Center for the Study of Georgia History at Augusta State University, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s National Preservation Award (2001), and the Governor’s Award in the Humanities (1992).

Law died on 28 July 2002, at his Savannah home.

National Register of Historic Places

 

 

 

 

 

 

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