By NICK ROBERTSON, Savannah Morning News
SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Spanish moss swayed in the trees over Savannah’s windswept Laurel Grove South Cemetery on Saturday, Feb. 29 — the last day of Black History Month 2020 — as about 30 people gathered to join a free tour showcasing final resting places of the city’s African-American heroes.
“This is Laurel Grove South, and it’s almost entirely an African-American cemetery,” said tour guide John Brannen, while drawing the crowd’s attention to the grassy expanse of grave markers ranging from humble plaques to statuesque tombstones. Dating back to 1853, this cemetery contains the remains of some 54,000 people, many of whom were instrumental in shaping Savannah’s saga.
Organized by Savannah’s Cemeteries Department in partnership with the Massie Heritage Center as a new initiative for Black History Month, these educational excursions were held on Saturdays beginning Feb. 8 to highlight notable African-American luminaries and civil-rights activists interred here. According to Savannah Cemetery Director Richard Gerbasi, the program was very popular, with almost every tour fully booked; most participants were locals.
Brannen, who works for the Cemeteries Department as its information and events coordinator, made sure to point out historical inequities that impacted this unique cemetery, such as the construction of the Interstate 16 off-ramp onto W. 37th Street that divided this graveyard from the more famous Laurel Grove North Cemetery.
Nonetheless, Laurel Grove South contains many fascinating tombs and gravestones that are well-preserved, largely thanks to the efforts of Savannah civil-rights leader W.W. Law, who is himself buried there. Law’s grave was a highlight of Brannen’s tour, but the excursion featured stories of many other notable African-Americans who rest in peace there, too.
One of the first stops on the tour was the grave of Thomas Williamson — better known as “Old Tom” — who lived from 1808 to 1904. Pressed into duty as a servant during the Civil War, Williamson’s grave bears a Southern Cross of Honor bestowed upon the burial places of Confederate veterans, to the surprise of many tour participants.
Next, Brannen led the group to the grave of Rev. Daniel Wright, one of Savannah’s first civil-rights proponents, who surreptitiously distributed a controversial Black newspaper to churchgoers here.
“Daniel would give his congregation copies of the Chicago Defender, which at that time was illegal in Savannah,” Brannen said.
Similarly, the grave of Rev. Emanuel K. Love — a pastor of the First African Baptist Church, who worked with Savannah State University founder Richard Wright — provided Brannen with an opportunity to highlight the city’s early struggles for equality.
“He was a political advocate, and basically his work foreshadows the civil-rights movement in the city,” Brannen said of Love.
Other notable figures highlighted on the tour included Boys & Girls Club founder Frank W. Callen, Rachel Ann Brownfield (who sheltered Union soldiers hiding in Savannah during the Civil War), and Rev. Ulysses L. Houston, who led a thousand of his congregants to start an independent community on Skidaway Island following emancipation.
During the February tours, even Brannen learned about some notable Savannah residents interred at Laurel Grove South that he was previously unaware of, like Esther Garrison, the city’s first woman African-American school-board member.
“On my first tour, I didn’t even realize she was buried here until someone pointed her out to me,” said Brannen, who hopes to carry on the Laurel Grove South free-tour initiative during Black History Month 2021.