The series of African-American cemetery tours that the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center launched this month at the Old Mount Pisgah Primitive Baptist Church Cemetery does not shy from the legacy of slavery in America and here in Bulloch County.
Repeating “If These Cemeteries Could Talk…,” the title of the monthly series, Dr. Alvin Jackson, Willow Hill Center chairman, led the Feb. 16 tour as participants visited the graves of all 37 persons born in slavery who are known to be buried in the Mount Pisgah Cemetery.
To make familial connections, along the way he also noted the graves of a few individuals born after slavery. But Jackson and tour participants made a special point of calling out the names of each of those 37, who were freed with the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865 and died after the church, founded in 1883, moved to its present site in 1890.
“Call the names of our ancestors,” Jackson said. “There is an old saying among our people that you are not truly dead until they stop calling your name.”
Nearly 30 people, including a few children and journalists, took part in the tour. They traveled in a small bus and a few private cars from the Willow Hill Center to the church in western Bulloch County. In sight of Fish Trap Bridge, so called because fish were trapped there as far back as the 19th century, Mount Pisgah is sometimes also called the “Fish Trap Church” and this, the “Fish Trap Cemetery.”
But formally it is Old Mt. Pisgah Primitive Baptist, and the tour began with Jackson, who is a medical doctor, and the church’s pastor, Elder Rufus Love, greeting participants from the church’s front porch. Standing near them was mother of the church Bertha Pryor, third in her line, after her own mother and grandmother, to serve as a church mother at Mt. Pisgah. Jackson thanked her and others for their work in maintaining the cemetery.
‘Old Line’ prayer
Elder Love noted that the church is an “Old Line” or “Hard Shell” Primitive Baptist congregation, and then began to pray in the manner of that tradition. Jackson knelt beside him as Love knelt on the porch and prayed, rhythmically and with a refrain of repeated thankfulness, beginning with the Lord’s Prayer and continuing.
“Once again, I want to thank you, Father, Oh Lord. …” Love prayed. “I want to thank you Father, Oh Lord, you’ve been better to me, Father, than I have been unto myself. …”
He noted that his church, as part of its tradition, does not use instrumental music in its services. But a little music was on the Willow Hill Center’s program for the remembrance tour. Earl Donaldson, who like Jackson is a descendant of some of the church’s first members, quietly played a snippet of “Amazing Grace” and then “When the Saints Go Marching In” on his clarinet as the visitors walked to a back corner of the cemetery.
There they passed around a fragment of a prison bar from the slave dungeons of Ghana as they arrived at the grave of Andrew Donaldson, the first member to join Mt. Pisgah in 1883 after the five founders.
‘Born a slave’
“Born a slave in 1812, he died in 1897,” Jackson said of Andrew “Andy” Donaldson, his great-great grandfather. “He was enslaved to Robert Donaldson, who was a Primitive Baptist minister, and Matthew Donaldson later, his son.”
Andrew Donaldson was also “a mulatto, or a very light-skinned man, so that tells you something about the history of what slavery did and how among our people some are light and some are dark and some are in-between,” Jackson said, alluding to genetic evidence of patently unequal relationships between slave owners and enslaved people.
After slavery ended, Donaldson became a farmer and landowner.
At first, former slaves attended the same churches as their former owners, particularly among the Primitive Baptist Churches of this area, Jackson had noted.
“In fact for nearly 14 to 15 years after the Civil War, blacks were members of the Nevils Creek or many of the white Primitive Baptist churches,” he said.
But these churches did not allow black men to become ministers, unless they left to form separate churches. Five people organized Mt. Pisgah Primitive Baptist Church on Nov. 21, 1883. They were Howard and Martha Kirkland, Cain Parrish, founding pastor Elder Aaron Munlin and a white minister, Elder J.L. Smith, who acted as clerk for the organizational meeting.
“There was a law in Georgia in 1829 that made it a crime to teach a slave to read and write. …,” Jackson noted during the tour. “But when freedom came in 1865, you could find these slave folks wanting somebody to read the newspaper to them and making sure that their children got an education.”
After calling Andrew Donaldson’s name aloud, participants also called the names of his two wives, whose graves are nearby, Clorie Donaldson, 1820-1912, and Lucy Donaldson, born in 1830 but whose death year was not known for the program.
On through the 37 names were several more Donaldsons, a large number of Parrishes, several Kirklands, and couples or individuals with the last names Best, Hall, Harvey, Hodges, Johnson, Lanier, McCrae, Newburn, Riggs and Littles.
Slavery and the selling of human beings even made family names unstable, as Jackson indicated near the graves of Jack and Eliza Littles. Born in 1831 and originally slave to a white man named Parrish, “Jackson Parrish” was sold in the 1850s to a man named Tolbert Littles.
“So if you study the record, sometimes they identify themselves as Parrishes; sometimes they identify themselves as Littles,” Jackson said.
The first teacher
Near the end of the tour, he stood beside the grave of Georgia Ann Riggs Parrish, 1859-1938.
“Why she is so important to us is, she was the first teacher of the Willow Hill School when it was established in 1874,” Jackson said. “She was 15 years old when she started teaching, and she starts teaching in a turpentine shanty in Bulloch County, Georgia.”
The monthly cemetery tour series is part of the Willow Hill Center’s activities for the National Commemoration of 400 Years of African-American History. This is dated from the landing of 20 enslaved Africans at Point Comfort, Virginia, in August 1619.
Mt. Pisgah was the third Primitive Baptist church founded by African-Americans in Bulloch County, after Banks Creek Primitive Baptist Church in 1879 and Old Bethel in 1882, Jackson said. The next tour is slated for Old Bethel Primitive Baptist Church Cemetery on March 16, with further tours the third Saturday of each month.
Willow Hill legacy
Nine years after the end of slavery, former slave families in the Willow Hill area near Portal, many whose last names you have just read, established a school. This was just three years after public education of any kind was introduced to Bulloch County.
After further incarnations, the current 1954 brick building housed an integrated Willow Hill Elementary School for a quarter century before it closed in 1999. Volunteers, including descendants of the original founders, bought it from the Board of Education and organized the Willow Hill Center in 2005. In addition to museum exhibits on the historic black schools and Primitive Baptist churches, the center has amassed more than 10,000 obituaries and oral interviews recorded over several decades.
“You have to understand that proud tradition,” Jackson said. “That’s why the Willow Hill Center exists, so we can tell these stories, and we will tell these stories to our children, their children and the generations to come, to know that a people who was formerly enslaved went on to make a great contributions.”
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.