A huge part of Statesboro and Bulloch County’s rich history is in disarray and undocumented, but a group of people, spearheaded by Drs. Alvin and Gayle Jackson, hope to change that, one cemetery at a time.
Nestled behind a wrought iron fence on one side and a screen of trees on other sides sits a piece of property shrouded by oak trees more than 100 years old and dotted with cedar trees. Tombstones fill the area, more than 700 of them. A handful are so old that etchings are difficult to read. Many are unmarked and crumbling. Some are newer, stamped with fresh dates.
If the cemetery on the corner lot of East Olliff, facing Packinghouse Road, could talk, one might hear the cadence of a Negro spiritual, sung in the cotton fields of Bulloch County, or the clip-clop of horses’ feet, pulling a carriage laden with a casket taking Miss Minnie to her final resting place, her son, “Blind Willie” McTell, playing the harmonica and humming the blues as he walked next to the casket.
Or maybe it would be the soft conversation of a nurse and teacher and barber sharing the struggles of obtaining work in a “Jim Crow” world; perhaps the gentle jabs and ribbing of almost 50 former military men, besting one another as to which branch of service rivaled the others.
According to deed records, the cemetery originated in 1903 and was called “The Colored Folks Cemetery.” More often called the “Colored People Cemetery,” it was sometimes called the Thomas Grove Cemetery because of its proximity to a church of the same name. However, the cemetery never officially belonged to Thomas Grove Missionary Baptist Church.
Located behind Eastside Cemetery, which was segregated for most of the 20th century, the Colored People Cemetery is the largest African-American cemetery in Bulloch County.
Local historian Dr. Alvin Jackson, who was born in Portal and attended Willow Hill School as a child, serves as president of the Willow Hill Heritage & Renaissance Center. He and his wife, Dr. Gayle Jackson, have made it their mission to gather information from the 34 known African-American cemeteries in Bulloch County, giving tours every third Saturday of the month.
The A.C. Dunlap Memorial Cemetery
Last Saturday’s tour was the largest one, featuring the Colored People Cemetery, which is now officially renamed the A.C. Dunlap Memorial Cemetery.
Starting with a worship service at Thomas Grove Missionary Baptist Church, participants heard a brief history of the cemetery, as well as the church associated with the cemetery. Thomas Grove pastor, the Rev. Arthur L. Kelley, welcomed attendees of the tour.
Gayle Jackson said, “We want to preserve the history of our churches and make sure that our ancestors are not forgotten. The history of the African-American people is not in the history books. We have made it our mission to record the history of every single person.”
Alvin Jackson reminded those in attendance that Statesboro was a bustling town during the turpentine era.
“Cotton was king,” he said. “And the railway was here. All these forces coming together to make Statesboro the place to be.
“A man named Lewis Thomas, born in slavery in North Carolina in 1853, came to Statesboro later and met and married Samantha Joy. Together, they started Thomas Grove Missionary Baptist Church in 1895.”
Alvin Jackson said that trustees from Thomas Grove and other early African-American churches in Bulloch County came together to purchase land for the cemetery, as there was no burial ground for African Americans then.
Speaking of former generations, including those coming over on early slave ships, Jackson said, “Inside your genes rests the strength of a people. Our ancestors did so much to put us here. They paved the way for us in this great city. I challenge you, let us remember, lest we forget.”
The Jacksons then led the group on a walking tour of the cemetery, and attendees were encouraged to share information about family and friends buried there.
Debra Mincey, Thomas Grove member, spoke first about Josephine Sweet, 1958–2015, who began attending the church as a homeless hairdresser.
“We embraced her, and she loved the people of Thomas Grove,” Mincey said. “Her journey was a faith journey.”
Morris Stevens added, “She said the journey of the African American is a faith walk. She used to say, ‘Press forward.’”
Alvin Jackson led the tour to the gravesite of Sollomon Brown, one of the oldest markers in the cemetery and one of the three known former slaves that include Brown (1861–1903), Mariah Pate (1857–1947) and Henry George (1860–1948).
Attendee Solomon Smart pointed out the graves of his mother, grandmother, uncle and nephew. Jackson encouraged those on the tour to call out the names, adding, “We know the saying, ‘May the work I’ve done speak for me.’ We respect the work that you’ve done, and we thank you.”
Jackson paused at a headstone stamped with the names of Talmadge and Alma Mincey. With obvious emotion, he said to the crowd, “I know them from the cotton fields. We picked cotton together. In the era of cotton, several families would pick cotton together.” Lowering his head, he added, “Your memory is in my heart.”
In the shade of the largest tree on the plot, small rounded tombstones marked the graves of the oldest burial, Lizzie M. Roberson, an infant who died in 1899, and her sibling, John, who died in 1902. Another marker showed a resting date of 1901.
These located tombstones call into question the beginning date of the cemetery, which, according to records, was 1903.
On the other side of the large oak, James Golden’s tombstone, dated 1907, leans to the side, obviously pushed over by the roots of the tree.
Jackson showed the graves of the Butler family patriarch and matriarch.
“This whole line of graves belongs to a very prominent Bulloch County family, the Butlers,” he said. “The first projects for African Americans was named for the Butlers.”
History of cemetery residents
With almost an encyclopedic-like wealth of genealogy and cultural knowledge in his head, Jackson continued, “Roxie Bell Millen married into the Butler family. Roxie married Eugene Butler, a blacksmith who operated a shop off Main Street. When he died in 1952, an article was written on him in the newspaper. If you’re African American and you get an article written about you at that time, that represents great prominence.”
Jackson pointed out other distant relatives: George Donaldson, whose grandfather helped found Willow Hill School; Cousin Gussie, an early African-American nurse who worked on the black ward section of Bulloch County Hospital; and George’s son, Bobby.
“How many of you here had your hair cut by Bobby Donaldson?” Jackson asked, and a show of hands lifted. “He made us proud because he was a businessman.”
Some added a tidbit of info Jackson didn’t know, that Bobby Donaldson was also a bail bondsman and bus driver.
Morris Stevens pointed out his mother’s grave and said his family grew up near the cemetery and would often visit relatives’ graves there.
“Sometimes, I would come out and remember who was gone. And now my mama’s grave is here,” he said. “You can only know where you’re going if you know where you’ve been and where it started.”
Detra Hodges, standing near relatives’ graves, said she remembered the story told to her of her grandfather.
“He went to court with shackles on,” she said. “He’d been in an altercation with a white man. My grandmother helped him escape, and he left with shackles on his feet and hands and made his way to Ohio.
“When I first met him, I was 15 years old, because he waited for the statutes of limitations to run out.”
Gayle Jackson requests that anyone interested in helping clean the unkempt cemetery to get in touch with the Willow Hill Heritage & Renaissance Center and Cemetery Committee at (912) 800-1467.
“We’re trying to get more people involved with our committee, to clean up these forgotten African-American cemeteries, to honor and remember our ancestors,” she said.