Bethlehem Church and Cemetery, Georgia

Slygo Valley, Dade County

I discovered this church in Dade County, Georgia after reading it had a connection to Black history. I found it by the using the Historical Marker Database and sorting by African American interest. Since I was going to be in the area, I chose to document it.

The marker details the Cole family who owned a plantation nearby. It shares that when the Civil War began, William Cole gave $1000 in gold coins to Adaline, an enslaved woman, and sent her and the other people he enslaved to Alabama because he feared what the Federal troops would do.

After the Civil War, supposedly, the now freedmen and women returned with Adaline to the area. The story that is shared is that she returned the $1000 in coins to William Isham Cole.

The marker further states that the cemetery made a place for the formerly enslaved, and that these burial locations could be seen with the field stones on the left side of the hill. The cemetery was initially part of the Cole plantation.

First, I could not find any field stones. They may have been there at one time, but those markers no longer exist in the cemetery. I even walked the tree line looking for markers that might be in the woods. Historically, this is often where slave burials are found in plantation cemeteries.

Secondly, it’s critical to understand why a newly freed person may return to the area where they were enslaved. Many families were split up during slavery, and many people would return in hopes of reuniting with loved ones. Adaline may have chosen to return for her own safety because it is easy to believe that a bounty would have been issued to get the money returned to Cole.

According to the 1870 Dade County census, an Adaline Cole does live in the county. Since many freedmen and women would take on their enslaver’s last name, this is likely her. She is married with seven children. Based on their listed ages, six of her children were born into bondage.

Finally, the marker was placed by the Sons of the Confederacy and the Georgia Civil War Commission. These organizations, especially the Sons of the Confederacy, have a particular narrative that they want to support about the Civil War. That narrative is that it was a just and needed war. to fight for state’s rights. This church and cemetery were not significant to the Civil War from what is shared in the marker. First, the church was not built until the 1930s. A marker like this has limited connection to Black history, too. While the story could be true, I believe that this type of marker is trying to support the Lost Cause narrative. For one, it is trying to make out William Cole as a “benevolent master.” There is no such thing when it comes to the institution of slavery. For instance, the marker says, “He had a deserved reputation for fair treatment of his slaves, and once paid considerably more to keep a young man from being separated from his family.” Who is claiming that Cole treated the people he enslaved well? If it’s not the people he had in bondage, then the claim cannot be held up. The Federal Writer’s Project that sought to get the stories of freedmen and women. It is considered one of the best sources to understand the life that Black men, women, and children had under slavery. I did not locate a narrative that discussed life on the Cole plantation.

Additionally, it cannot be held as a point of pride that the enslaved and formerly enslaved are in the same cemetery when their burials and headstones are vastly different than the Cole family members and white church members.

This church is historic, but it’s not for the stated reasons why a marker was placed. The architecture and the age of the church qualify it to be historical. Additionally, there are various grave markers that show how burial practices evolved in the north Georgia mountains.

Panoramic view of cemetery
A tent or comb grave which are mostly seen in Tennessee

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