Humble Headstones Speak Eloquently of Dead

Article excerpt

SAPELO ISLAND -- Cornelia Bailey and her neighbors have buried their dead in Behavior Cemetery for almost 200 years, beginning with their ancestors -- West African slaves brought in chains to work Sapelo Island's cotton and sugar cane fields.

The Gullah, like other blacks enslaved in the South, had few possessions and no money to buy headstones for their deceased loved ones. So they improvised, using what little they had or could find and make to mark the graves.

"They were simple headstones -- hand-carved wood or made of tabby with one side smoothed over. You'd see a pretty pink flowered plate, a cup or some other favorite keepsake of the deceased loved one, and that would be the headstone," Bailey said.

Nobody knows how many slave cemeteries are in Georgia. But historians say they are in danger of disappearing unless action is taken to locate, document and preserve them.

The Lower Altamaha Historical Society in December plans to publish a book listing all 85 cemeteries -- black and white -- in McIntosh County. It is the first such comprehensive document of its kind, historians said.

Buddy Sullivan, society president and a coastal Georgia historian, said McIntosh and neighboring Glynn County are dotted with cemeteries established around the 1800s by slaves or emancipated blacks.

Behavior Cemetery, established in the early 1800s, is the only McIntosh County cemetery on the National Register of Historic Places.

It was listed in 1996 along with Hog Hammock -- population 68 -- and Raccoon Bluff Church, also on Sapelo Island, which historians say is one of the last enclaves of Gullah culture in the United States.

The Gullah were West African slaves and descendants of slaves who settled on the coastal barrier islands of Georgia, the Carolinas and Northeast Florida after the Civil War.

Bailey's relatives were among the first Gullah on Sapelo, and 10 generations of her kin are buried in the cemetery.

"Hundreds of people are buried here. We have a lot of unmarked graves," Bailey said. "The wooden markers rotted away, the tabby ones crumbled apart or the keepsakes that were put out to mark the graves were stolen by tourists over the years."

In addition to Behavior Cemetery on Sapelo, there's also Butler Cemetery in Darien; Hudson Cemetery near Meridian; and Jewtown Cemetery on St. Simons Island, he said. …