Located approximately two miles down a dirt road is the Smith Chapel and School. The scene above sits on the front of the church as a greeting for anyone who enters. Founded in 1911, there isn’t much know about the congregation.
For approximately fifty years after the Civil War, a popular way to memorialize young children who had passed was a figure resting in a half shell. Prior to 1900, twenty-two percent of all children in the United States died before their first birthday.
The shell can represent a pilgrimage, spiritual protection, and innocence. Using those meetings, it makes sense this became a symbol for child graves.
Wealthier families would employ sculptors to make one that represented their child. Poor families, who wanted their children memorialized, adopted the shell as a way to mark graves when Sears Roebuck offered them in their catalog.
Here is a great academic article about these monuments by Annette Stott.
Founded in 1882, Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery in Athens, Georgia was the first cemetery owned by Black community in town. Over 3,000 Black Athenians have been laid to rest here. From Monroe “Pink” Morton, a prominent builder and namesake of the Morton Theater, to noted quilt maker, Harriet Powers.
The Gospel Pilgrims were a benevolent organization started after the Civil War. One benefit the group provided was burial insurance. In Athens, the organization was so popular that by 1912 almost 75% Black Athenians were members.
It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.
Tilley Bend Baptist Church is located in the mountains of Fannin County. It organized in 1858 and was relocated to this location in the late 1920s because the local electric company was creating a reservoir.
Based on what I’ve read in other sites, it seems the cemetery existed before the church was built since there were burials before the 1920s in the cemetery.
One fascinating tale is that Elizabeth Tilley Bradley put a hex on the fighting Tilly and Stanley families. No children were born or lived past infancy after this supposed curse was placed. Church and community members hung her from the tree in the center of the cemetery and buried her below the tree.
I don’t believe the story because why would a church bury a witch in their sacred burial grounds? However, this story has been repeated enough that someone was in the churchyard recently and burned something near the tree. Elizabeth’s head and foot stones are on the other side of the tree.
According to a couple of other blogs out there, this isn’t the first time for someone to find burns near the tree.
Other great reading on this church, and it’s graveyard can be found at:
Located in Cowee, or Too Cowee, North Carolina, Pleasant Hill AME Church was started in 1874. Prior to the Civil War, Cowee was home to a significant population of freedmen and women and enslaved people. After the Civil War, Cowee had the most significant population of Black families in this part of Western North Carolina. This church building was built in 1929 and restored in 2009. While the church is no longer active, the cemetery is still used. This church is part of the Cowee Historic District for Macon County, North Carolina.
Built in the late 1870s, the Gillespie Chapel sits atop a steep hill where the front steps put you close to the edge of the hill. Regular services ended in 1975, but it now serves the Upper Cartoogechaye area as a community space.
Located in Camden County, Georgia, Rising Daughter Baptist Church, the cemetery is filled with a mixture of vernacular and commercial headstones. I am uncertain of the age of the church and cemetery, but based on headstones I would the age the congregation to be from the 1910s.
This is one of the Madonna markers, my friend Brian and I located in three different cemeteries. A full post about these markers are located here.
These markers show a repeated motif of the loops. If these marks are called something else, please let me know.
Harold and Thelma Swain were murdered inside the church. Their case remains unsolved after DNA evidence exonerated the man who initially went to jail. There is a new suspect in the case. For more information, their story can be read here.
My friend, Brian Brown, and I planned a photo trip while I was down at St. Simons for the week. As I was looking through Find-a-Grave, I noticed these vernacular figures repeated in a couple cemeteries. We decided to take a look. After seeing a couple, we realized they were likely a Mary/Madonna figure. The elements have worn off many of the details.
Since these were all in cemeteries of Black churches, it is possible that a local funeral home did them, or that it was a local artist. This is the first time I’ve personally seen a connection in monuments like these in several cemeteries. Even though likely cast, I do consider these vernacular in nature.
The Village Cemetery is located on the 258 acre Guale Preserve which is part of the Musgrove Plantation. It is a private cemetery that is only open to the ancestors of the enslaved who are originally buried there. This is one of the most incredible collection of vernacular headstones I have personally had the opportunity to document.
The glasswork and friezes are all done by an incredible artist(s). I tried to do genealogical searches to determine why these markers are here. Sometimes there are clues in the records, but I am unable to determine any.
My appreciation to Brian Brown to showing me this hidden treasure of a cemetery.
Established in the 1880s, this cemetery was started for the burial of Black mill employees from the Hilton-Dodge Mill. According to island stories, locals kept to themselves and did not interact with those who came to work on the island. When locals passed, they would be interred wherever their ancestors, oftentimes local plantations, but the “Strangers” would be buried in this cemetery.
During the 20th century the cemetery was renamed Union Cemetery as four traditionally African-American churches on the island – St. Paul Baptist, Emanuel Baptist, St. Lukes Methodist, and First African Baptist – bonded together to maintain the burial ground for use by their congregants.
Located on a dirt road in Burke County, I’ve not found much in the church.
The Poplar Spring School sits on the grounds of the Poplar Spring United Methodist Church. Built when the church was a part of Campbell County, this is a beautiful example of a one-teacher type school.
The church began in 1867 in a brush arbor. This is at least the third physical structure the church has had in it’s history. You can read more of their history on the chirch’s website. Outside of the church and school, there is a small cemetery and picnic area on the church grounds.
I am unable to find much about this church, but it is located outside of Sylvania in Screven County, Georgia.
Started in 1911, the Greek Orthodox section of Greenwood Cemetery is filled with impressive sculpture. On this one acre site, there are several monuments of unmatched artistry and a small chapel.
In Spartanburg, South Carolina’s Greenlawn Cemetery, there is an impressive monument, sculpted by Bernard Zimmerman , called “The Wonder of Life.” Commissioned by the cemetery, it’s one of the largest monuments I’ve seen in a lawn cemetery. Each sculpted figure (18 in total) represents different aspects of life. It was restored a a few years ago, and the trees that surrounded it were removed.