An ongoing series of cemetery tours, an activity-packed Labor Day weekend and more events each weekend in September are ways the Willow Hill Heritage & Renaissance Center is observing the National Commemoration of 400 Years of African American History.
The seventh and most recent of the usually monthly cemetery tours drew more than two dozen people Aug. 17 to Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, founded in September 1863, the oldest African American church in Bulloch County.
Inside the church, which is in a rural area southeast of Brooklet, Antioch’s pastor, the Rev. Richard A. Lawrence Jr., D.D., prayed the invocation, and church member Nell Johnson-Hendley led the group in “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” and sang another selection.
Welcoming participants, Dr. Alvin Jackson, president of the Willow Hill Center’s board, noted the significance not only of the church and its cemetery but also of the year.
“This year, 2019, represents the 400 years that African Americans have been in this country,” Jackson said. “It was in mid-August 1619 that 20 Africans landed – not voluntarily – near Jamestown, Virginia, (at) Point Comfort, and that is the origin of slavery in these United States.”
He referred to the Willow Hill Center as “an African American museum near Portal.” Based in the historic Willow Hill School, the center is also a nonprofit organization and a labor of love for Jackson, a physician whose ancestors were among the former slaves who founded a school for their children nearby in 1874.
“We want to invite you, this Labor Day weekend and every weekend in September, to come and visit us as we have a very dynamic program prepared,” he said.
This weekend’s events at Willow Hill will begin Friday, 5-7 p.m., with “The Importance of Education,” a presentation by Jackson on the life and legacy of Professor William James, founder of Statesboro High and Industrial School.
Saturday brings both the Willow Hill Heritage Festival, now in its ninth year, and the 400 Years of African American History opening event. Officials including the mayors of Portal and Statesboro, Bulloch County commissioners and Sen. Jack Hill are slated to attend the morning opening.
“Telling Our Stories” presentations begin at 9 a.m., and a community preservation symposium, with three experts on the subject, is scheduled for 11 a.m.-1 p.m.
Vendors, family activities and museum tours will open noon until 5 p.m. Three exhibits, new to the Willow Hill Center and all having to do with slavery or aspects of its aftermath, will open.
A Willow Hill School All Class Reunion will be held 6-9 p.m. Saturday, and more activities are scheduled for Sunday at the Willow Hill Center. More details of this weekend’s activities and the events later in September will be published this week.
Since 35 African American cemeteries in Bulloch County have been identified and the goal is to visit every one of them, the tour series, launched in February, will last well beyond this commemoration year.
The Antioch cemetery presented some special challenges, and the tour and its introductory meeting yielded some surprises.
As Jackson noted, the church’s founding, on or around Sept. 10, 1863, was not only near the end of slavery and during the Civil War, but in the year that President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
Earlier in the 1800s, enslaved black people often attended churches established by the white slaveholders, but usually sat in a separate area or remained outside.
In the 1860s, responding to 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. Inman E. Bryant and the Rev. M. Kemp, who became the organizers of Antioch Missionary Baptist.
The congregation originally met in a brush arbor, and a church was built at the present site after a man named Goodman provided one acre for that purpose for $1 in 1879, Jackson said.
The first minister called as pastor of Antioch Baptist was the Rev. J.E. Holmes. The Rev. Lawrence, serving since 2000, is the church’s 14th pastor.
One surprise was that Edwin Akins, whose extended family owns much of the land around Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, brought greetings from the Akins community, of which he considers the church a part. His grandfather, John Benjamin Akins who was born in 1869, at one time owned about 2,100 acres in the immediate area, Akins said.
Akins was one of several white people who took part in the tour, or in his case the opening gathering inside the church.
“There was one thing we were always taught, to respect this church, respect the cemetery, and if there was any time that there was a service going on, be it a worship service, a wedding or whatever, if we came by this church, we were to keep our mouths shut. …,” Akins told the group. “This was a respected place of God, and we honored this church.”
Another surprise, even to Jackson, was that Statesboro Mayor Jonathan McCollar showed up, with his wife, Adrianne, and acknowledged his Antioch roots.
“Antioch is home for me,” Mayor McCollar said. “My earliest memories are growing up in this church,” he said. “As a matter of fact, I used to come down with my great-granddaddy and my great-grandmother, and my granddaddy would go over here and sit on the deacons’ side.”
Later in the cemetery, McCollar indicated the gravesites of his great-grandparents who raised him, Will and Estrella McClouden, and noted that other relatives, with last names such as Mincey and Hunter, are also buried there.
Antioch’s cemetery contains approximately 561 known graves, of which 198 are unmarked, Jackson noted. Depressions in the earth probably indicate additional graves. One was marked by a nameless, aged wooden plank standing vertical.
Jackson, who leads the tours, asked people from the church and its extended families to talk about their relatives who are buried in the cemetery and to identify gravesites when possible.
Traced to Africa
Gregory Grant noted the gravesites of his parents, Lois and Albert Grant, and named other relatives, especially among the Goodmans and Reids. Some of the graves in these families’ areas of the cemetery were marked, but others were not.
Grant said that the burial site of his earliest known ancestor in the Goodman line, his great-great grandmother Mariah Goodman, who came from Virginia, probably isn’t in the cemetery. But her grave may be in a field off Wilson Road, where his mother used to say they had a relative buried, he said.
Grant can also trace his lineage back to a man identified in the 1870 census only has having come from Africa.
“Now where the African connection comes in is the father of Morris, who I named Moses, and the reason I named him Moses is because Morris’s first son is called Moses,” Grant said. “The naming practice at the time would be that you would name your first son after your father. So, since his name is Moses, I gave him the name Moses – Moses the African. So, I’m three generations from Africa.”
At the Antioch cemetery, the tour group recited the names of the three known former slaves buried there, and the program also listed two teachers, two ministers and 25 U.S. military veterans for special recognition.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.