“Those are human bones,” says Elizabeth Welch, indicating a few random bones lying on the ground in the sun.
We are pushing aside branches as we maneuver over the pock- marked ground of Red Hill Cemetery in Ware County, Georgia. Welch is giving me a tour of an abandoned African American cemetery that dates to at least 1814.
Welch is the director of the Okefenokee Heritage Center, a multi-county cultural organization based in Waycross, in southeast Georgia. She has been working for the last year to clear the way to restore this archeological site, which is a rare reminder of the prominent black community that once thrived here.
When we enter the grounds, it is hard to see any sign that this is a burial ground. But Welch brushes aside leaves to uncover toppled headstones. She points to low spots and small openings in the ground that are sunken graves. She shows me where one family is still maintaining their loved ones’ graves, in stark contrast to the rest of the area.
Toward the back of the property, the extent of the damage — not just neglect — becomes obvious. There are toppled headstones and open graves where the heavy cement and stone covers have been smashed or moved, creating holes I can’t stomach peering into. Toward the edge of the hill, human bones lie exposed on the surface, no longer connected to a specific grave.
Despite neglect, the Red Hill Cemetery is a unique historical treasure, Welch explains as we push through the overgrown property. The cemetery’s more elaborate graves, which include mausoleums, were not common in African American burial grounds of the post-war South. The expensive interments indicate that there was an African American community here with substantial economic means. That history lies submerged beneath the undergrowth and trees.
It is not uncommon for cemeteries to be abandoned to the elements, said Michael Trinkley, director of the Chicora Foundation, a South Carolina archeological consulting firm that specialize in cemetery restoration.
“Some were abandoned because families moved away,” he said. “Others were abandoned because the churches they were associated with ceased functioning, and others were ‘lost’ because they were not perpetual care and as money ran out, so too did care.”
Georgia law gives local governments the right to maintain abandoned cemeteries, but many governments don’t take on the responsibility.
Several people in southeast Georgia are helping Welch resolve legal issues and create a plan to restore the Red Hill Cemetery. Among these volunteers are Willie Character and the members of the Okefenokee Heritage Center’s Black Heritage Committee. They are identifying the people buried in Red Hill. Also spearheading the project is the RIVERS Foundation, a non-profit headed by Dr. Yolanda Rivers that works to dissolve health, educational, and economic disparities in Ware County.
The volunteers aren’t asking the local government to fix and maintain the site. They are willing to take on the job themselves. But to do that, they need the county to grant them legal status so they can apply for grants.
Restoring the historic cemetery is a big job. Once a cemetery has deteriorated to the condition of Red Hill, it’s past the point where volunteers can maintain the site with mowing and clearing brush. The property is so old that trees have damaged or obscured graves. Each of the burial sites would have to be located and restored, Welch said. That includes identifying the bones. The people with the skills to perform those services cost money, so Welch has been applying for grants. But the ownership issue has created a roadblock.
If the local government doesn’t assume control, determining who owns the cemetery is complex and ambiguous. When the five Red Hill Cemetery trustees died, under state law, the responsibility for governing the cemetery fell to their descendants, 28 of whom have been identified by the heritage center.
Leaders of the Okefenokee Heritage Center have spoken to the Ware County Board of Commissioners several times about turning the property over to the heritage center to restore and maintain. Little progress has occurred. The county has not agreed to give the land away, and, if the land were sold, the county commissioners would also require the buyer to pay for attorney fees, an appraisal, and a survey, amounting to thousands of additional dollars. Without ownership, the heritage center cannot apply for grant money to move ahead.
The heritage center secured a donated appraisal and basic survey of the property, but the county commission has not responded. (The Ware County Commissioners, Ware County manager, county attorney, and Waycross mayor did not respond to the Daily Yonder’s requests for comment.)
But the heritage group is not giving up.
Welch says the burial ground is an important piece of history. “There was a time when the rest of the country was having trouble, we were a bastion of progressiveness,” she says.
One example of a leader interred in Red Hill is Frank Hazzard. He founded the community’s black church and its African American school, which was governed by its own school board. A voter record indicates that Hazzard registered to vote shortly after the Civil War.
“These are people out here – the people who represented our county on a national level and started institutions that are still here today,” Welch says. Now they are “littered across the side of a vandalized hill.”
Katy Rogers lives in Ware County, Georgia, and serves on the board of directors of the Okefenokee Heritage Center.