My latest visit to Savannah included a few firsts. I stayed in a new (to me) place this time. In the past, I’ve stayed in hotels out in the ‘burbs or Tybee Island because in-town accommodations are pricey. But thanks to VRBO and our very helpful real estate agent, Mary Anderson, we scored awesome (yet affordable) digs in the historic district.
My other “first” was visiting Laurel Grove South Cemetery (LGS). When I was in town back in February, I went to her sister cemetery next door, Laurel Grove North (which I will write about soon) but didn’t make it to LGS.
Laurel Grove Cemetery is split by what is now Highway 204, carved out of the Styles family’s Springfield Plantation. Cemeteries like Colonial Park in the heart of Savannah were nearing capacity so a new place for burials was needed. It opened in 1850.
In 1853, four acres were set aside at Laurel Grove for African-American burials. Several graves were moved from the earlier cemetery known as “Negro Ground” on an 1818 map. In 1857, an additional 11 acres were added and in 1859 it was expanded to 30 acres. A caretaker’s house was added as well.
Laurel Grove has always been two separate cemeteries. LGS was for African-Americans and LGN was for whites.
LGS is notable because it contains not only slave graves but several of freedmen who lived before the Civil War as well. It remains an active cemetery with many recent burials. LGN filled up near the end of the 1800s.
Walking around, I saw a mixture of old and new markers, brick vaults and tall monuments. One of the first I noticed was for the Rev. William J. Campbell.
I learned later that Campbell went from being a slave to become the fourth pastor of the historic First African Baptist Church of Savannah. His life is a story worth sharing.
Born into slavery in 1812, William Campbell probably received his freedom in 1849 from his mistress, Mrs. Mary Maxwell. He was baptized in 1830 by the Rev. Andrew Marshall (also buried at LGS). In 1855, William was licensed to preach and after working as Marshall’s assistant at the First African Baptist Church, he succeeded Rev. Marshall (who had died in Virginia) as pastor in 1857.
In addition to his powerful voice, Rev. Campbell is known for overseeing and fulfilling Rev. Marshall’s dream of building a permanent place of worship for the congregation. Completed around 1860, you can still tour the church today.
Rev. Campbell also took part in an extraordinary meeting (along with 19 other African-American pastors/leaders from Savannah) in January 1865 with General William T. Sherman, who was encamped there after his infamous March to the Sea. It would later be known as the “Forty Acres and a Mule” meeting.
Sherman wanted to know what the now-freed slaves wanted as the Civil War drew to a close. Garrison Frazier said, “We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own.”
The result of that historic meeting was Special Field Order 15, which stated that each freed family “shall have a plot not more than forty acres of tillable land.” The Order confiscated as Federal property a strip of coastal land extending about 30 miles inland from the Atlantic and stretching from Charleston, S.C. about 245 miles south to Jacksonville, Fla.
It didn’t, however, mention mules. Those were distributed sometime later.
Several other pastors and deacons of the First African Baptist Church are buried at LGS. But some very old graves near the entrance represent the humbler souls buried there.
Toward the east side of the cemetery, a sign notes the pauper’s field for those who couldn’t afford a marker. It looks like an empty swath of grass.
At the same time, there are some eye-catching markers worth noting. Willemina Claghorn was probably the daughter of freed slaves due to her expensive-looking grave marker. The motif of an angel bearing a child Heavenward is one I’ve seen in many Southern cemeteries.
Dr. Thomas James Harris was born in Jamaica in the British West Indies in 1866 before he came to Savannah. He was likely a Freemason, as evidenced by the symbols on the side of his monument.
The all-seeing eye, also called the Eye of Providence or Eye of God, has origins dating back to the Eye of Horus in Egyptian mythology. It’s also part of the Great Seal of the United States, which shows the all-seeing eye floating on top of a pyramid. This can be seen on the back of the U.S. one dollar bill. I’d never seen one on a marker before.
The three-link chain below the eye is another Freemason (or Independent Order of Odd Fellows) symbol, representing faith, love and truth. Those are common in both white and black cemeteries.
Tucked away in a back corner is a gem similar to many monuments at LGN or Bonaventure. In fact, the sculptor who created the statue for it was John Walz. He is best known for his much-loved statue of Gracie Watkins at Bonaventure Cemetery. Walz owned a studio on Bull Street and created many stunning grave markers during his lifetime.
My visit to LGS proves yet again that beauty is where you find it. The grandeur of Laurel Grove North and Bonaventure Cemeteries will always dazzle and amaze. But Laurel Grove South’s quiet charm and rich history are just as captivating.
I’ll be back.