Laurel Grove South Cemetery

This Hidden History was created by SCAD student Parker Stewart as part of his SCAD art history department coursework with guidance from art history professor Holly Goldstein, Ph.D., 2015.

The Laurel Grove South Cemetery historical marker was dedicated on January 29, 2000. View the Laurel Grove South Cemetery historical marker listing.

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1. Laurel Grove Cemetery South Main Entrance, 2015. Courtesy of Parker Stewart.

2. Google Maps, 2015.

3. Old Savannah Map, 1885. Courtesy of Rhett Nurseries.

4. Vernacular Headstone, 2015. Courtesy of Parker Stewart.

5. Colonial Box Grave, 2015. Courtesy of Parker Stewart.

6. Handmade Vernacular Gravestone, 2015. Courtesy of Parker Stewart.

7. Chain-link Fence Plot, 2015. Courtesy of Parker Stewart.

8. Reverend Andrew Bryan, 1888. Courtesy of Emanuel King Love.

9. Jason “Camoflauge” Johnson Gravestone, 2015. Courtesy of Parker Stewart.

The following essay is by SCAD student Parker Stewart, 2015.

On the southwest fringes of Savannah’s Historic District, Laurel Grove Cemetery is the final resting place for much of Savannah since 1853. Divided today by the I-16 37th Street Connector, Laurel Grove Cemetery North and South are segregated in both interred population and land. Follow 37th Street west, cross Ogeechee Road, and one would find themself at the front gates of Laurel Grove South Cemetery (Fig. 1). Here lies some of the most prominent members of the African-American community throughout the history of Savannah. Gravestones dating back to the early 1800s can be found here, however this was not their original location. In 1853 the land for the Laurel Grove Cemetery was appropriated for the city’s official cemetery. Prior to this date the cemetery for black Savannahians was located near what is now Whitfield Square in the Historic District. [i] What a visitor or local would not know standing on the corner of Lincoln Street and Gaston Street (Fig. 2) surrounded by towering live oaks and beautiful 19th and early 20th century mansions is that they are standing above Savannah’s original “Negro” burial ground, used until 1853. [ii] Many of these semi-formal graves were wiped away when the city began to expand in the middle of the 19th century. Most graves would have been marked by a wooden cross or bottle shard outline, [iii] the few memorials and gravestones that existed in the original cemetery were moved to Laurel Grove South in 1853 when the city appointed four acres for the African-American community. Only two bodies were moved during this process and they were the bodies of Reverend Andrew Bryan and Reverend Henry Cunningham. [iv] There is some conflicting information on whether or not the bodies were actually moved. Some sources state they were moved, and some state they weren’t. Through the years Laurel Grove South has occupied a place both on the edges and in the center of Savannah’s historic record. The site lies on the margins of the Historic District, but the lives remembered there are at the heart of Savannah’s African-American Community.

Prior to becoming Laurel Grove Cemetery, the land which today stretches from Gwinnett Street in the north, to Victory Drive in the south and flanked east and west by Ogeechee Road and Stiles Road was the Springfield Plantation. [v] Joseph Stiles, an Oglethorpe colonist, originally owned the Springfield Plantation. The 500 acres was a narrow belt of lowland 300 acres wide and was used as a rice plantation until 1820. [vi] By 1830 the land was declared a public nuisance due to drainage issues from the Ogeechee Canal. [vii] The City of Savannah purchased the plantation in 1850 from the heirs of Joseph Stiles. The city chose to use the newly purchased land as the new location for the all-white cemetery, Laurel Grove, and the “colored” people’s cemetery, Laurel Grove South. [viii] The cemetery was dedicated on November 10th, 1852 (Fig. 3).

Laurel Grove South Cemetery has been an integral part of African American society in Savannah. The history literally lies there within the chain link fence that surrounds the land, which was originally only four acres, but today is just over 90. One of the unique features of Laurel Grove Cemetery South is the material used in the construction of gravestones and site markers. In the late 19th and early 20th century many blacks only had access to certain materials. There is not much Georgia marble or polished granite in Laurel Grove Cemetery South. Cement, poured into vernacular headstone molds (Fig. 4) are a popular choice as well as colonial style box graves made of bricks (Fig. 5), as well as handmade headstones with hand-stamped text on the stone (Fig. 6). The colonial box grave was a burial method that became uncommon in most communities on the east coast in the mid 19th century, but it was used well into the 20th century in Savannah. When in need of materials for burials, members of the family would scrape some bricks from the pile at work every day until eventually they had toted enough material home to make a proper monument for their loved one. This is what makes Laurel Grove South so diverse. People pulled from every part of life to build these memorials. (Fig. 7)

Many important African American members of the Savannah community are buried in Laurel Grove South. Notably, the chronologically oldest person whose body lies in the cemetery is Reverend Andrew Bryan (fig. 8). Andrew Bryan was born a slave in Goose Creek, South Carolina in 1737 and was eventually transported to Savannah. [ix] Bryan was baptized in 1781 by Reverend George Liele who soon after left Savannah for Jamaica, never to return. [x] After Liele’s departure, Bryan took over the Savannah Fellowship, baptizing his brother, Sampson, and together they preached to the slaves working along the Savannah River. [xi] Both men were beaten and imprisoned for their preaching. [xii] Bryan was ordained by the white Reverend Abraham Marshall and the black slave minister Reverend Jesse Peters. [xiii] Reverend Marshall and Reverend Peters also baptized 45 of Bryan’s followers, thus forming a church congregation, and Bryan was appointed minister of Brampton Barn on the Brampton Plantation owned by his master Jonathan Bryan. [xiv] Bryan’s ministry began in the late 1790s. He purchased a lot of land for $150 with the help of William Bryan, his former master’s son, and James Whitfield as trustees, the site upon which the present First Bryan Baptist Church is located. Bryan died on October 6, 1812, as a free man. [xv]

From notable to ordinary citizens, Laurel Grove is a cemetery still in use today. These men and women helped build the state of Georgia and city of Savannah; they fought for their freedom, not once but twice. [xvi] Slaves, heads of churches, leaders of movements, politicians, soldiers, writers, artists, and musicians comprise those buried here, representing a society which ran parallel to the white society of the same city. Notable Savannahians include W.W. Law, an acclaimed civil rights activist, and Savannah’s beloved rapper Jason Johnson a.k.a. Camoflauge whose funeral attracted 5,000 people in 2002 after he was shot and killed at 21 years old. [xvii] Laurel Grove South will continue to be the final resting place for many in Savannah both today and tomorrow, continuing the nearly 300 year history of this truly magical place.

[i] The Genealogical Committee of the Georgia Historical Society, Register of Deaths in Savannah, Georgia, vol. 4 (1840).

[ii] Hugh Golson, Interview with the author, May 2015.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Candace McNeal, et al, “Historical Markers and African American Heritage in Savannah” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 3, no. 2 (April 2013).

[vii] James Johnson Waring, The Epidemic at Savannah, 1876. Its Causes – The Measures of Prevention, Adopted by the Municipality Curing the Administration of Hon. J. P. Wheaton, Mayor, (Savannah, GA: Morning News Steam Printing House, 1876), 16.

[viii] McNeal, “Historical Markers and African American Heritage in Savannah.”

[viii] John Walker Guss, Savannah’s Laurel Grove Cemetery, (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2004), 10-12.

[ix] Sandy D. Martin, “Andrew Bryan (1737-1812)” New Georgia Encyclopedia, 28 August 2014, (accessed May 26, 2015).

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Charles J. Elmore, An Historical Guide to Laurel Grove Cemetery South, (Savannah, GA: King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation, 1998), 16-17.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Ibid., 4.

[xvii] “Rapper Killed in Midtown Shooting,” (accessed May 20, 2003).

Charles J. Elmore, An Historical Guide to Laurel Grove Cemetery South. (Savannah, GA: King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation, 1998).

John Walker Guss, Savannah’s Laurel Grove Cemetery. (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2004).

Candace McNeal, et al. “Historical Markers and African American Heritage in Savannah” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 3, no. 2 (April 2013).