Category Archives: Vernacular Headstones

Pleasant Hill AME Church, Macon County

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 While the church is no longer active, the cemetery is still used.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.

Rising Daughter Baptist Church, Camden County

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.

Madonna Figure, Camden County

Flossy Scott Fisher and child, Rising Daughter Baptist Church. I was able to find the death records for Flossy Scott Fisher. She died in childbirth which explains the Madonna figure and the headstone next to her.

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.

Grace Scarlott, Rising Daughter Baptist Church
Macchca Mowat Alderman, Clinch Chapel Methodist Church
Side view of Macchca Mowat Alderman, Clinch Chapel Methodist Church
Sina Green, Oak Hill Methodist Church
Backside of Sina Green, Oak Hill Methodist Church
Unknown, Oak Hill Methodist Church

Village Cemetery, Glynn County

Peter Ramsey, 1873-1931

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.

Hattie Lee, 1871-1929
John Davis, 1871-1927
Lucinda Ramsey, 1924-1956
William Ramsey, 1887-1952
Aaron Loman, 1891-1931
Camilla Sullivan, 1896-1923
Jim Hightower, 1884-1934
Albert Hampton, 1897-1937
Thomas Lee, 1881-1933 – “Death is eternal. Life why should …”

Stranger’s Cemetery, Glynn County

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.

Hazel Cafe proprietors

Smith Grove Missionary Baptist Church, Jefferson County

This a well cared for church and cemetery in Jefferson County, Georgia. The vernacular headstones and some of the ledgers are incredibly interesting. One of the ledger stones reminds me of stained glass. I wondered as I photographed it if glass was once there.

In doing a doing genealogical search, I am unable to determine why it is Professor Lewis Seabrook. I was hoping to find out that he was a professor for a local college. In census data, he is listed as a farmer. Maybe he was just so knowledgeable that he earned that name.

I will continue to research about this church. It’s still active, or as active as a church can be during COVID.

Bessie McKnight Jones Grave Marker, Atkinson County

This is one of the most impressive vernacular markers I’ve ever documented. If you’re familiar with the Nettles Death Masks in Alabama, I consider this marker as important as those masks. Down a sandy road, this small rural cemetery in Sandy Bottom is likely not threatened by development but by time and location. The ledger stone is cracked and the marker is leaning forward.

I was unable to find a great deal about Bessie and her family. She was married to a man who was 20 years older than she was. Her parents were John and Amelia “Mealie” McKnight and her husband was Lonnie Jones. On her birth certificate, it was revealed she died due to malaria.

Holt Cemetery, Orleans Parish

Items left on a grave.

Started in 1879, Holt Cemetery is a potter’s field cemetery in New Orleans. It is filled with vernacular headstones. At 7 acres, it is a small, densely packed cemetery. It is still active. When I visited, they were preparing for another funeral.

Nettles Death Masks, Clarke County

Outside of Carlton, Alabama, Mt. Nebo Baptist Church’s cemetery contains death masks created by Isaac Nettles. Nettles created these masks by making molds of the subjects’ faces while they were still alive, which is different than the traditional death mask which are made after someone passes. The three person marker represents Isaac and Cora’s three daughters, and it rests atop Cora’s grave. There are two other markers made by Nettles. These are deteriorating quickly. In 2020, Hurricane Sally caused significant damage to the masks. These are incredible pieces of folk art. At one point, there were four death masks. One was made for Isaac’s mother Selena/Celina. It was damaged by Hurricane Frederick in 1979. The markers were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.

Basket Creek Baptist Church Cemetery, Douglas County

The Basket Creek Baptist Church Cemetery was established in 1880 with its first burial. Unlike other cemeteries, there is no vegetation. The cemetery is swept and the plot mounds are rebuilt. This practice is tied to West African burial practices. It’s the only known cemetery in Georgia that utilizes this practice. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Sheffield UMC Cemetery, Glynn County

Down a sandy road, there is the Sheffield UMC Cemetery which has several vernacular headstones made with tile. Outside of marbles, this is one of the most used materials I see in homemade headstones and ledgers. There was a church next to the cemetery, but it burned many years ago.

Lord. I Am Redy, Tift County

This vernacular headstone can be found in Greenwood Cemetery in Tifton, Georgia. The KOFP represents the Knights of the Pythias. The interlocking links is a symbol of the Independent Order of the Odd Fellows, and the links stand for friendship, love, and truth.

John B. McElmore

If you were a fan of S-Town, you likely wondered about the final resting place for John B. McElmore. I visited a few years ago and was impressed with the handmade headstone. I believe this was made by Tyler Goodson. He rests in the cemetery behind Green Pond Presbyterian Church in Bibb County.