Though it has been expanded during its history, the original circa 1869 core remains in this venerable church, built by Freedmen. Enslaved men and women established this congregation circa 1859 and when they were able, they built their own house of worship, which still serves their descendants to this day. If you’re driving to Christ Church or Fort Frederica, don’t overlook this important part of the island’s history.
Tag Archives: Slavery in Georgia
There is a small section of an original tabby wall on the right of the drive into the modern gated community at Hampton Point Plantation. Owners at some point incorporated tabby fencing (the lower section to the right).
On the left of the entrance to the gated community is a much larger section of tabby wall. (Detail below)
Major Pierce Butler (1744-1822) purchased Hampton Point near the northern end of St. Simons Island in 1774. Butler served South Carolina in the American Revolution, was a member of the Continental Congress, a Signer of the Constitution, and the first United States senator elected from South Carolina. Since he divided most of hist time between Charleston and Philadelphia, he hired Roswell King to manage his plantations in Georgia. After the death of Butler’s wife in 1790, his South Carolina plantations were sold and his primary focus shifted to Hampton Point and other Georgia Sea Island plantations. Hampton Point was his largest cotton operation with the largest slave population.
n 1805, Major Butler retired from politics and spent most of his time in Philadelphia. Upon his death his namesake grandson inherited Butler’s vast holdings in Coastal Georgia. The younger Butler did not prove as good a businessman as his grandfather and to remain financially solvent sold off his slaves in 1859. Approximately 436 human beings were auctioned near Savannah in what has come to be known as The Weeping Time, for its separation of numerous families. It is believed to be the largest single sale of human beings in history. The plantation burned in 1871, leaving only traces of the tabby structures built by those enslaved on the property.
Ruins of Slave Dwellings at Hampton Point Plantation
The ruins of four slave dwellings are visible today. While only two retain significant architectural features, all are important to the story of the enslaved people of St. Simons Island. I have no way to date them as I only had brief access and have not located documentation regarding dates of construction. If I were to venture a guess I’d estimate 1800-1830. They appear to have nearly identical floor plans to the slave dwellings at Hamilton Plantation.
The ruins are located on private property and I visited with a resident. Though I photographed all four visible dwelling sites, I’m only sharing the two which retain the most significant architectural features. For identification purposes, I’m calling one North Dwelling and the other South Dwelling.
The North Dwelling retains a small section of its northeastern wall and the scattered remnants of its hearth.
The South Dwelling is the most intact of the four sites, retaining sections of all four walls, a defined window, doorway, and hearth.
200 former slaves from Jacob Waldburg’s plantation on St. Catherines Island first settled in the White Bluff area between the Little Ogeechee and Vernon Rivers in 1868. After purchasing 200 acres from John Nicholson in 1878, the community was first known as Nicholsonboro, then Nicholsonville. A church was established here by 1883 and the original (not pictured) still stands in poor but stable condition. The present structure, dating to circa 1890, is the most significant remaining landmark of the historic community.
National Register of Historic Places
The First African Baptist Church of Riceboro is considered the “Mother Church of all Black Churches in Liberty County”; the present structure was built in the 1960s to replace the original church. The community, just west of Riceboro, is locally known as Crossroads.
A marker placed by the Liberty County Historical Society notes: The First African Baptist Church, the oldest black church in Liberty County, had its origins in the North Newport Baptist Church, founded in 1809. In 1818 the North Newport Church, composed of both white and black members, purchased this site and erected a church building here [circa 1849] which had a gallery for the slave members. In 1854 the North Newport Church moved to Walthourville, but the black members in this area continued to use the old building. In 1861 the black members formed their own church organization and the first black pastor was the Reverend Charles Thin. On July 20, 1878 the North Newport Church sold the building to A. M. McIver for $225 for use by the First African Baptist Church.
One of the early white pastors of this church was the Reverend Josiah Spry Law to whom a cenotaph was erected here in 1854 by both blacks and whites.
Three other neighboring churches have been formed from the membership of this church: First Zion Baptist Church in 1870, First African Baptist Church of Jones in 1896, and Baconton Baptist Church in 1897.
African-Americans were baptized in this swamp beginning in the 1840s. It’s just downstream from a well-known fishing and swimming spot known as Round Hole and was likely chosen for its proximity to that natural landmark.
Baptisms were first performed on enslaved persons by white members of the nearby North Newport Church. When the white congregation moved to Walthourville in 1854, the slaves renamed the church First African Baptist Church and continued ritual baptisms here until the 1940s. Some of their descendants are the Geechee people who still live nearby.
Today, the Historic Baptismal Trail has been memorialized as a public park with a boardwalk, including signage identifying plants and trees that were historically important to the community.
Sheffield Chapel was organized in 1854 with 20 members, including namesake Jack Sheffield, Sr. Three churches of varying construction housed the congregation from just after the Civil War until they merged with Haven United Methodist Church to form Haven Sheffield United Methodist Church in 1998. The last, built in 1969 and abandoned since the merger, was lost to arson in 2009. The cemetery is cited in some sources as Sheffield U. M. C. Cemetery and in others as Clayhole Cemetery, for its location in Clayhole Swamp.
Tile Grave Markers of Sheffield Cemetery
Sheltered by old-growth oaks, Sheffield Cemetery contains some of the most important surviving African-American vernacular grave markers in the region. Otherwise simple headstones were decorated with commercial tiles of various colors. (There are nine by my count). Some of the sides and bases feature the tile, as well, while the backs are exposed and feature the names of the decedents. They generally date to the 1930s and 1940s and were likely accomplished by a member of the congregation.
Frenchie Taylor Wite (White?) 15 April 1902-7 October 1944) – This is the most colorful of all the tile markers. The name for Mrs. Wite may be a misspelling of White. Such errors are common with homemade markers, in both black and white cemeteries. The first photo shows the marker in perspective.
Name Indiscernible (1940s) – This is the smallest of the markers.
Name Indiscernible (May 10 1885?-December 19?) – Eroding text on the exposed concrete backs complicates identification.
Sam May (7 September 1867-22 September 1936) – This is the only stone not featuring the predominant mid-century commercial tile.
Carther Lawson (22 May 1932-? 1946)
Robert Sheffield (1884-9 June 1947) Tiles have fallen off this marker.
There is also a marker for Prince Richardson (1877-27 January 1949), but I somehow overlooked it.
Other Headstones of Sheffield Cemetery
Besides the whimsical tile markers, a number of other significant markers and plots are located within Sheffield Cemetery. I’m sharing a small selection here.
John Sheffield (11 November 1825-13 October 1910) – The Sheffield family, who established the congregation in slavery days, are well represented.
Susan (Akin) Sheffield (16 December 1834-9 December 1914) – Susan married John Sheffield in 1852.
Arnold Sheffield (25 February 1859-14 July 1910) – Arnold was the son of John and Susan Sheffield. Chains carved on the grave indicate he was born into slavery, as were all (or nearly all) those buried here who were born before the end of the Civil War. Sometimes, actual chains were placed within the concrete of the graves and some scholars suggest that broken chains indicate that the decedents were freed. This is not employed in all cemeteries but the chains speak for themselves, even for those who lived long after Emancipation.
March Wesley (August 1848-28 January 1931)
H. E. Westley (Wesley) (?-5 November 1957) – Birthdates of African-Americans, even long after the end of slavery, were often unknown.
Ida Roase (Rose) (1882-18 March 1904) – I believe this is a foot stone, placed before a more formal marker was added.
Alex Atkinson (13 March 1863-6 December 1945) & Ida Atkinson (10 August 1869-10 September 1938) were successful small farmers, like many members of Sheffield Chapel.
The marker placed by the Georgia Historical Society in 1962 notes, in part: The Isle of Hope Methodist Church was organized in 1851. The first Trustees were George W. Wylly, Simeon F. Murphy, John B. Hogg, William Waite, Theodore Goodwin, Thomas J. Barnsley and the Rev. William S. Baker. The church building that stands here was erected in 1859 on land given by Dr. Stephen Dupon. Its architecture is similar to that of the early churches at Midway and Ebenezer. The gallery at the rear of the church was built primarily for accommodations of slaves…During the War Between the States a Confederate battery stood on the church lot, mounting two 8-inch columbiads and two 32-pounder cannon. The church was used as a hospital for Confederates stationed in the area, the pews (still in existence) serving as beds. Thirty-three Effingham County soldiers sleep in the adjoining churchyard.
Isle of Hope Historic District, National Register of Historic Places
Also known as the Wylly-Bee-LeBey House, this raised Plantation Plain is an interesting variant of the popular style of 19th-century Georgia. Local tradition says that construction of the house was started by Wylly and completed by Barnard E. Bee. A later owner, Miss Ella LeBey recounted this story: Mr. Fred Wylly told my mother this…story. When the overseer and slaves were digging deep for the main chimney, an iron box with a ring in the top was discovered by the slaves and also human bones. The slaves thought it was a casket, quickly covering it over and the chimney was built. The Negroes were afraid of the haunting of the dead for disturbing the grave. Nothing was said until the chimney was almost complete and the overseer said the chimney was more valuable than any old pirate’s loot. After that, whenever the house was vacant people dug to find the treasure. Mrs. Chaplin [later owner] said she filled the hole with cement. Later we found reasons to believe she engineered the removal of the treasures because of the old watches and bracelets satin and velvet she showed my mother.
Isle of Hope Historic District, National Register of Historic Places