The Willow Hill Heritage & Renaissance Center’s series of tours of African-American cemeteries resumes Saturday, with a tour of the burial grounds of the oldest extant African-American church in Bulloch County, Antioch Missionary Baptist Church.
Note also that this tour will not begin, as the others have done, with a gathering at the historic Willow Hill School, which is near Portal. Instead, participants are to meet at 8 a.m. at Luetta Moore Park, 121 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Statesboro, to travel to the church and cemetery at 197 Antioch Church Road, Brooklet, for the 9 a.m. tour. A bus is scheduled, with a bus driver having volunteered, and the tour is free and open to the public.
This will be the seventh cemetery visited in the “If These Cemeteries Could Talk” series launched in February. The goal is to tour every known African-American cemetery in Bulloch County. Since the list has grown to 35 cemeteries, the project will extend roughly three years, with the tours occurring on a mostly monthly basis.
“That is the plan, to do all of them and bring awareness to the need to preserve these cemeteries and also mark all the unmarked graves,” said Dr. Gayle Jackson, who organizes and publicizes the tours for which her husband, Dr. Alvin Jackson, serves as oral historian and guide.
Volunteers like the Willow Hill Center’s other supporters, they are, respectively, its development director and board president.
Antioch since 1863
Founded Sept. 10, 1863, during slavery – and in the midst of the Civil War – Antioch Missionary Baptist Church provides an example of the way many of the first African-American churches in Georgia were created.
During the 1800’s, many white churches permitted slaves to attend services, but they had to sit in the balcony or stand outside on the grounds, Jackson noted. Because of the desire of black people to have their own places of worship, two white ministers, a Rev. Edenfield and a Rev. McCall, ordained several black ministers, including the Rev. Ivan Bryant and the Rev. M. Kemp, who became the organizers of Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, according to a historical summary she provided.
When the church celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2013, members recounted a tradition that Bryant’s horse and buggy were destroyed as he traveled through Bulloch and surrounding counties to create churches. The first pastor called to serve the congregation was the Rev. J. E. Holmes.
A ceremonial aspect of the cemetery tours is the reciting of the names of persons who lived in slavery over each of their graves, whether they died before emancipation or after.
But the Antioch cemetery illustrates some of the challenges, both for simply calling out the names and for the longer-term goals of marking graves and filling gaps in the shared history. The cemetery contains 561 known graves, of which 198 are unmarked, the Jacksons report. They acknowledge that additional burial sites may be simply unknown.
“It being the oldest church, you can imagine that it should have the graves of many former slaves within it, but we’ve only seen three that were former slaves,” Gayle Jackson said. “So with all of the unmarked graves, a tremendous number that are there, that’s why we’re asking the church members and former members to come and help us in identifying any of the unmarked graves.”
Family members who have information on the general area of family plots within the cemetery are also asked to help, she said.
Willow Hill events
The tour series was planned in association with the Willow Hill Center’s observance of the National Commemoration of 400 Years of African-American History.
That commemoration will come home to the Willow Hill Center in the historic school at 4235 Willow Hill Road, Portal, on Labor Day weekend, Aug. 30-Sept. 1, the traditional time of the Willow Hill Heritage Festival, now in its ninth year, and will continue with special events every weekend in September.
Festival weekend will feature the opening of three exhibits new to the Willow Hill Center: “The Tragedy at Ebenezer Creek,” prepared by Isaac McCaslin; “Many Thousands Gone,” prepared by Eric Saul and Amy Fisk in cooperation with The Center for Jubilee, Reconciliation and Healing Inc.; and “Beyond Property: Slavery in Coastal Plain Georgia 1650-1865,” prepared by the Georgia Southern Museum and Georgia Southern University’s history department.
The latter exhibit is a remounting of one that debuted at the Statesboro Convention and Visitors Bureau.
A Willow Hill School All Class Reunion will also be part of the Labor Day weekend events, and there are several others.
A story in an upcoming edition of the Statesboro Herald will report details of the festival weekend and the planned events through September.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.