The Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center will continue its series of monthly tours of African-American cemeteries Saturday, this time with visits to two cemeteries in one morning.
Part of the Willow Hill Center’s participation in the national Commemoration of 400 Years of African-American History, the “If These Cemeteries Could Talk” series led by Dr. Alvin D. Jackson is slated to include all 34 known African-American cemeteries in Bulloch County. Saturday, the fifth and sixth cemeteries in the series will be the Lee Cemetery and St. Mary’s Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery.
The tours are free and open to the public. Participants will meet at 8 a.m. at the historic Willow Hill School, 4235 Willow Hill Road, near Portal, and travel to St. Mary’s Missionary Baptist Church, 2227-B Mallard Pond Road, Statesboro, for the 9 a.m. tour.
Jackson, president of the center’s board, is a medical doctor by profession but an oral historian by interest and deep personal study of this material. Graves of people born in slavery receive special attention, with tour participants as a group calling the individuals’ names’ aloud.
Freed slave’s story
One of the former slaves to be remembered Saturday is July Butts, born in 1825. He and his wife Amy owned a farm in Hancock County. As a freed slave, July Butts became interested in the “Back to Africa Movement” being led by Henry McNeal Turner, a bishop of the AME Church.
Dr. Alvin Jackson and his wife Dr. Gayle Jackson, who handles advance publicity on the tours, provided this brief biography of July Butts. They also cite Ancestry.com.
In the late 1890s, a Mr. Gaston, a representative of Bishop Turner, held regular meetings in the area to help former slaves raise funds to finance their travel to Africa. At one of those meetings, some white people shot in on the gathering.
After that incident, there was a decrease in interest in those preparing to go to Savannah to board the ship to Africa. But July Butts and his family were not discouraged, as they sold their farm and possessions and moved to Savannah.
Despite that commitment, it appears that not enough money was raised to finance the voyage and the trip to Africa did not happen. Around 1900, the Butts family moved to Bulloch Couny. July Butts died in 1905 and is buried in the Lee Cemetery.
For more information on Saturday’s tours or the series contact Dr. Gayle Jackson, (912) 800-1467.