Home Family Law Lengthy-lost cousins ​​attempt to protect the deserted slave graveyard in South Georgia

Lengthy-lost cousins ​​attempt to protect the deserted slave graveyard in South Georgia

Lengthy-lost cousins ​​attempt to protect the deserted slave graveyard in South Georgia

MORVEN, Ga. (WCTV) – The United States is home to thousands of people who can all trace their roots to the same ugly truth: They are descendants of slaves.

The only tangible family history of many of them exists in the form of old cemeteries. But many of these sites are in danger of being wiped out, either reclaimed by the wilderness or threatened by urbanization. Now a network of cousins ​​with roots in South Georgia are working to prevent that from happening.

“This is the region in the 19th century, it was all wiregrass territory,” said Fannie Marie Jackson-Gibbs, who was standing in a church graveyard in Morven.

A drive through the small Brooks County town suggests she’s disappearing. Located about 30 minutes’ drive outside of the city of Valdosta, the town has two full-time officials and a single grocery store. Farmland and abandoned buildings abound. This is where Jackson-Gibbs grew up. Their family homestead, now derelict and without tenants, has been passed on for more than a century.

“In my 69th year, I’m back by that pond and I’m like, ‘Daddy, I’m doing everything I can to bring your ancestors home,'” to Daddy,” she told WCTV’s Katie Kaplan.

On one of the coldest days in recent memory, she stood in the graveyard of the New Macedonia Baptist Church off Jackson Road. The small cemetery includes tombstones with handwritten epitaphs. It is the final resting place of freed slaves and several people born in the mid-19th century.

According to Jackson-Gibbs, however, it is an even older cemetery where the church originally stood before it was accidentally burned down by the deacon. This location is about a quarter mile away and is obscured by the dense Georgia forest. The land was sold a long time ago.

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

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 carving the 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 foundation for a non-profit organization she founded to raise money for her recovery. Macedonia Community Foundation, Inc. is a registered 501(c)(3), a concern that extends well beyond the borders of Brooks County.

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

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

“Brad and Laura had 16 children,” she said. “These grandchildren have what we have documented at least 107 great-grandchildren and that is my generation. The last was born in 1966. After that, it kind of exploded.”

Elder is a member of a private Facebook page created for descendants of Brooks County enslaved families. It was founded in November 2021 and already has around 130 members – who are probably all related.

“I wanted to bring all the families back together,” said the site’s creator, Atlanta resident Kellinda Brown. “Some mysteries I had were solved because those came into the group and shared information.”

Brown said it’s a tool that has already helped fill in some of the gaps 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 among members.

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

“Lowndes County, Brooks County, Thomas County, Decatur County, I just discovered Colquitt County,” she said. “If I go back and look at the DNA, we really are all connected and bound by slavery.”

DNA tracking has also helped break the proverbial “wall” and link some of the families to distant relatives in Jamaica, Ghana and Haiti.

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

“It’s completely forested and it breaks my heart,” Brown said of the Valdosta-area cemetery where her ancestors are buried.

It’s a problem state officials said is plentiful in Georgia, with an estimated more than 1,000 sites in the state alone.

“There are a large number of cemeteries throughout the state, and of course some are revered, marked and maintained,” 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 who are quite abandoned and no one cares about them at all.”

It is currently up to local counties, historical societies, and volunteers to rectify this, as McDonald notes that “there is no public agency that cares about cemeteries.”

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

“It has cost at least $30,000 to $40,000 between repainting the fence and restoring the graves,” said volunteer John Romine, who has tended Quitman’s West End Cemetery since 2014.

The site is only about 10 miles from Morven and includes many of the town’s founders and notable residents. His organization, the West End Cemetery Restoration Committee, has raised thousands of dollars through community donations. In 2019, the group commissioned a company to conduct a survey on the use of ground penetrating radar.

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

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

Each individual grave has since been marked with a large metal stake and washer costing $3.50 each. An effort that is worthwhile for many.

“Going to the places where they are laid to rest means a lot to a lot of us,” Brown said, speaking broadly on the subject. “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 she bought supplies and hired a Valdosta State archaeologist to survey the land. She is now hoping members of the Brooks County community will step in to help even more.

“I’m asking anyone who’s willing to help us do this — help us,” she said.

Jackson-Gibbs said she is disabled but would like to help clear the overgrowth of the old church cemetery and put up a new fence around it for future generations to visit, and she can keep the promise she made to her father has.

Currently there is no law or funding to help with the restoration, preservation and maintenance of abandoned cemeteries in Georgia, so it is up to the local communities and volunteers to step in.

In Florida, the legislature recently created a task force tasked with looking into the issue and deciding how to proceed with each location in the Sunshine State. However, this is not the case in Georgia. However, there is a Peach State law that prohibits landowners from disturbing cemeteries and preventing people from visiting them.

A lot has also happened at the national level. The African-American Burial Grounds Network Act would place the National Park Service in charge of such sites and provide funding for their conservation. It passed the Senate in December 2020, but has been listed as “held at the desk” ever since.

The Black Cemetery Network also works independently to track down sites important to African American history. The old cemetery of the Macedonian Baptist Church in Morven and the West End Cemetery in Quitman have not yet been listed.

To get in touch with Jackson-Gibbs and learn how to help in Morven please email FMJGibbs@gmail.com.

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