Returning dignity to Strathy Hall Cemetery

Recently, I was watching one of my favorite YouTube channels, Ask a Mortician. The host, Caitlin Doughty, was interviewing Dr. Kami Fletcher about the important role Black funeral homes and cemeteries have played in U.S. history.

Dr. Fletcher said something that hit hard with me. She said that those funeral homes and cemeteries offered something in death that some Black people weren’t always given in life: dignity.

A hand-etched headstone in Strathy Hall Cemetery.
Photo by Jazmine Mckellar

I’ve explored many cemeteries spread out across the South. The ones I most often see forgotten and unkept are for BIPOC.

When I was producing a Black History Month special for my last news station, I came across a story from Tampa about a Black cemetery that had been cleared and sold off for development. Almost a century later, people started asking questions which led to an investigation. More than 120 bodies were found on the site of an apartment building. You can read more about it here.

This isn’t an unusual story. It’s happened over and over again all over the U.S. (Just look up the meaning behind the African Burial Ground National Monument in NYC.)

So I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that a historic Black cemetery, with graves dating back to the 1700s, had an entire neighborhood built around it and slightly on top of it.

Tucked away next to the Ogeechee River is the Strathy Hall Plantation. And while the home is certainly gorgeous, it was a plantation worked by African slaves.

Photo by Jazmine Mckellar

When those people died, they weren’t allowed to be buried in proper cemeteries. Their loved ones had to make their own. These slave cemeteries were usually in swampy or undesirable locations.

I first visited Strathy Hall Cemetery in July. What started as a cemetery for slaves had grown to include descendants and other notable Black families from Richmond Hill. Over the years, a neighborhood had been built around it and nature began to reclaim the cemetery.

This grave is for a member of the Blige family and is most likely related to singer and actress Mary J. Blige. Photo by Jazmine Mckellar

There had been efforts in the last 20 years to clear out the plant growth, so families could pay respects to loved ones without having to hack through kudzu vines and dodge thorn bushes. Unfortunately, without someone to maintain the cemetery, it was only a matter of time before the headstones were lost to vegetation again.

The Bryan County chapter of the NAACP started looking into what it would take to maintain and restore it. They were able to join forces with Richard Appleton, who owns the Strathy Hall Plantation, to track down the owner of the property and help establish a nonprofit to run the cemetery.

Now the biggest challenge is clearing it out.

When I tell you that nature had swallowed that cemetery, I’m not exaggerating. Richard is slowly going through with weed killer to make it easier to clear by hand. He told me he has to do that because many of the headstones are so delicate that getting hit by a lawnmower or weed eater might break them or erase part of the inscription.

From what he had already cleared, i could see what he meant. The inscription on some headstones had been hand-etched, others had been knocked over, and some were so worn by weather and time that I couldn’t read them at all.

When I went back recently with my friend Jazzy, I could tell that some progress had been made, but there’s still a lot left to do.

Aside from fixing up the known graves, they also have to track down all the unmarked graves. Some of those can be found through ground penetrating radar, but others may actually be under two homes.

Those homes were built within the boundary of the cemetery. At last check, family members of the original homeowners’ are trying to figure out who actually owns them.

It’s a neat cemetery, and I’m glad people are finally making an effort to preserve it. I don’t recommend visiting it on your own just yet because the graves aren’t all marked.

If you’re interested in being part of of the restoration efforts though, definitely contact the Strathy Hall Cemetery Facebook page.

Through all our combined efforts, we can make sure these people have dignity in death.


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