Amy Roberts’ footing struggled Thursday morning with the uneven soggy ground beneath her, and occasional breezes shook loose the previous night’s leftover raindrops from the pine needles overhead.
This tangled patch off an unbeaten path is about as close to the middle of nowhere as you will find these days on St. Simons Island. Sure, the second-story eaves of million-dollar homes in a nearby subdivision hover on the western horizon, but you cannot get here from there.
In fact, a person driving by on the pair of tire tracks through high grass that passes for a road back here might not see Union Memorial Cemetery for the forest that resides within it. But this is hallowed ground for folks like Roberts, members of the island’s deeply-rooted African American community. And so should it be for us all.
Buried here in this wooded lot surrounded by hurricane fencing is a treasure of local history and lore. Reliable teachers, merchants and war veterans from the early 20th century lie at rest beside a woman who once sang at Carnegie Hall and branches from the family tree of one of the NFL’s all-time greats. And for all that is known here, the many unmarked graves scattered throughout Union Memorial speak of more history still to be rediscovered.
These aging gravestones tucked into the woods off of Demere Road beg for spooky ghost tales, but Roberts ambles around the cemetery with the good cheer of a first cousin at a family picnic. The deceased she does not know personally, she knows by heritage.
She points out the grave of Nora P. Daughtry (1888-1951), the aunt of legendary NFL running back Jim Brown, who spent his childhood on St. Simons Island. And over there is the headstone for Bessie S. Jones (1902-1954), star of the famed Georgia Sea Island Singers, who performed at Carnegie, Central Park and at folk festivals from Newport to the Smithsonian.
A short stroll leads to the markers for Adrian H. Johnson (1907-74) and Luetta B. Johnson (1914-77), the couple who were the last educators at the island’s Harrington School. Those buried among them are people who served this country’s military, ranging from a Korean War veteran all the way back to Ceasar Johnson (1900-60), a private in the army during World War I.
“There is so much history out here,” said Roberts, Executive Director of the St. Simons African American Heritage Coalition.
The history of Union Memorial Cemetery by necessity is tied to the slave days of the Antebellum period in the Golden Isles. The cemetery also is known as Strangers Cemetery. These so-called “strangers” were blacks who arrived after the Civil War. Beginning in the 1870s, these freedmen went to work in the sawmills that sprouted near present-day Gascoigne Park.
The “strangers” were so-called to differentiate them from the descendants of slaves bound the island’s sprawling cotton plantations — Retreat, Black Banks and St. Clar, among them. Those recently emancipated from St. Simons Island plantations still held hereditary rights to be buried in their family plantation’s cemeteries.
“If you were not associated with with the plantations, you could not be buried on the plantation,” Roberts explained, walking among the headstones. “You had to be buried here, at Union, because you were a stranger.”
And here we come to one of those quirky time warps where past and present blend. Union Memorial is no quaint outdoor museum piece, but a cemetery that is still open for business. So too are those black cemeteries with ties to the plantation era. Local descendants of plantation slaves still can choose to be buried at those ancestral cemeteries.
Roberts holds strong historical interest in Union Memorial, but her family is no “stranger” to St. Simons Island. She plans to be laid to rest at Retreat Cemetery, as is her birthright. She will rest beside her parents, sister and grandmother at the cemetery, which is on the grounds of Sea Island’s Retreat Golf Course off Kings Way.
Before the ink dried on my notes about this, Roberts points out the resting place of her brother, James Lotson (1937-2005). Lotson was an Army veteran, once decorated by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower for driving a flaming supply truck out of harm’s way. But Lotson chose the secluded grounds of Union Memorial over the present country club setting for Retreat.
“He did not want golf balls landing on his head,” Roberts said, smiling.
About this time, James Williams strode up to Roberts and handed her the walking stick she left behind in her parked car. She did not even have to ask him. A gentleman and a Vietnam War army veteran, Williams plans one day in the way distant future to rest in the tidy family plot at Union Memorial, beside his mother, father and others.
“This to me represents the slave peoples who went on to create for themselves the American dream,” Williams said.
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