In rural Wilkes County, there is a little brick church on the side of the road with a typical graveyard nearby. The stone marker says “Cherry Grove Baptist Church – Founded 1875”. The brick church doesn’t look particularly historic but, there is more to the story than meets the eye. Behind the cemetery, shielded by the trees, is a little wooden structure that represents some important Georgia history. This was a one room schoolhouse, c.1910, to serve the local African American children in the community of what was then called Cohentown. The school was in service until 1956.
According to the local history “A nearby community called Cohentown was founded on November 30, 1881 when a formerly enslaved Peter Arnett (1814-1892) acquired 62 acres of land from Gideon B. Bunch, a native Virginian, ex-Confederate soldier and deacon at the Danburg Baptist Church. Arnett’s acquisition would be the beginning of Black ownership of land in the township which would become known as Cohentown”.
A cemetery was soon established to serve the residents of Cohentown on land that was owned by Tom Hanson, one of the early Cohentown residents. Over time, the Cohentown Cemetery would be replaced by the current cemetery you see in the photos below. The old Cohentown cemetery would fade away in the late 1890’s and over a hundred years went by as the graves were forgotten to time, and slowly reclaimed by the forest.
After the Civil War, the south was in a state of chaos. Emancipated African Americans began to form their own churches, and they soon became the center of their community and daily life. The Cherry Grove Baptist congregation was formed in 1875 by former congregants of Springfield Baptist, located in nearby Washington. Springfield had been organized in 1868 and was considered the Mother Church for several of the smaller churches that sprang up to provide closer access for the local farming communities they served.
Cherry Grove Baptist was initially a brush arbor that was replaced by a log structure that served until sometime after the turn of the century, when it was destroyed in a storm. It was then replaced by a more substantial frame structure pictured below. Sometime in the 1970s it was bricked over, but the old church still exists behind that brick veneer. It was also during this time period that the Cherry Grove school was built, c. 1910.
There are only a handful of these old African American church-sponsored school structures left in Georgia, but they are historically important. After the Civil War, enslaved African Americans, who had not been allowed to read or write, were determined to obtain education for their children. Their struggle for access to education in pursuit of a better life, began a long journey that is significant in southern history, and the history of our nation.
By the turn of the century, these little church-sponsored one room schools were common across Georgia. The county would pay the teacher’s salary and provide older text books, but that was usually the extent of it. The local community had to do the rest. Later, better schools such, as the Rosenwald schools, began to appear in the south but for many rural black children, the church-sponsored one room schools were the only access they had to education.
The school was taken out of service in 1956 and slowly began to suffer the ravages of time. But fortunately, in 2015 some local leaders, organized by Barrett Hanson, decided to renovate the little schoolhouse and bring it back into community service as a living symbol of this period of our history. They formed a Friends of Cherry Grove Schoolhouse 501(c)3 organization and began to generate support for a funding campaign to save the school. They were also able to get the school nominated for inclusion on the Georgia and National Register for Historic Places as well as getting the school placed on the Georgia Trust “Places in Peril” listing for 2021.
The Friends group also found the location of the old Cohentown Cemetery and brought in an archeological team from Georgia State to help map and survey the old burial ground. To date 60 interments have been located, only two of which had headstones. One of these is pictured below. Unmarked graves were not unusual for this time period. Headstones cost money and most local sharecroppers simply couldn’t afford it. A simple fieldstone marker would have to suffice. There are some of those in the Cherry Grove cemetery as well, as you can see in one of the photos below.
As we said at the beginning….. more to this story than meets the eye. The old churches, schools and cemeteries were central to the lives of these 19th century rural African Americans. They inform future generations about this period of our history that is so important. We are grateful to the congregants of Cherry Grove for being good stewards of this history. Special thanks to Barrett Hanson and Rev. Ed Anderson for their leadership and assistance. You can find out more about the Cherry Grove school HERE.
This is a mid-20th century photo of Cherry Grove Church. This structure was built at the turn of the 20th century to replace an earlier building that had been destroyed by a storm. At some point in the 1970’s that building was remodeled and bricked over. The old church remains but hides within the brick walls of the new. This is often the case with a number of many old rural church structures in Georgia. The Cherry Grove School house is located close on the right. Proximity to the Church building was a necessity.
We are told that this is a mid-20th Century, Black and White photo of the Cherry Grove School House. The unseen church building is nearby to the left. As you can see, it was a very small single gable structure with windows on each side. But, this modest building was of great importance to the church congregation and community. After years of little or no schooling of any kind, the future of their children could be very positively impacted by what they would be taught within.
This is a recent photo of the School after years of neglect. The front entry and crude steps can be seen on the left. Though it is well worn, you can see that the structure appears to be redeemable. Thanks to the efforts of Friends of Cherry Grove School(FOCGS) the interior is now protected from the rain and weather by a large blue tarp. This is a critical “first step achievement” and evidence of the sincerity of the FOCGS. After years of neglect, now the School is under the wing of The Georgia Trust and has been nominated for the National Register for Historic Places…. All large steps toward a successful restoration.
We have now walked up the rickety steps, entered the interior and are standing inside, facing the back wall and the chalkboard area on that wall. Various pews, benches, boxes, etc are scattered about. Yes, we see a small space, but it is one that had a huge impact on its African American community! Though we see a great deal of disrepair, the ceiling, floors, windows and most importantly, the roof have not been fatally compromised and water damage is not present. It appears that resuscitation of this wonderful, historic relic of African American education history in Georgia for over a century would be a significant accomplishment.
Here we have a photo of what appears to be a significant problem. It is not. Throughout Georgia, buildings like these rest on stacked, unmortised fieldstone , foundation piers and have rested plumb and square for a hundred years and more. With modern equipment, replacement and repair with authentic materials is a common necessity and easily accomplished.
Here we have a closeup picture of the school ceiling, upper rafters and a stove flue. Even though the stove flue appears battered, it can be easily replaced. The ceiling boards are in fair condition and can be repaired with inexpensive authentic materials. Furthermore, once the restoration is completed, it provides the chance for visitors to see just how primitive but workable, clever solutions to every-day needs in rural Georgia were handled. This is real History and will be appreciated by generations for years to come.
Jim Owens was born May, 1840 and died May 30, 1907. The 1900 Wilkes County census shows Jim Owens, age 60 with his wife Candis Owens, age 63 and a 13 year old boarder. Jim and Candis were married in 1866. Candis is shown as having given birth to 4 children with 2 still living in 1900. Candis died January 5, 1922 and is also buried at Cherry Grove Cemetery. Her death certificate lists her parents as Lewis and Easter Wynn.
Oscar Britten was born March 3, 1893 and died March 12, 1961. An application for a headstone for his gravesite states he enlisted in the United States Army October 5, 1917 and was honorably discharged June 23, 1919. He was a PFC during World War I. His unit was 829 Cp Stevedore troops Trans Corp. His WWI draft registration card shows him as tall, medium build, black hair and eyes. The 1920 and 1940 census records show Oscar and his wife Martha living in Wilkes County but in 1930 they were living in Columbus, Ohio where he was working as a freight hauler for the railroad. Martha Britten (1904-1987) is also buried at Cherry Grove Cemetery.
Tom Weaks was born April 8, 1918 and died April 20, 1981. The 1930 Wilkes County census shows Tom Weeks, age 15, day laborer, in the household with his parents John and Mary Weeks, both age 50 and other household members. By the time of the 1940 census, Tom Weaks was living in the household with his sister, Lucy Weaks Bradley, in Macon, Georgia. Lucy was working as a servant in a private home and Tom was working as a laborer. Tom Weaks was living at 770 Hazel Street in Macon when he registered for the draft in 1941. He was 5’6’’ tall, 162 lbs. with brown eyes, black hair and dark brown complexion. He enlisted in the Army Feb. 5, 1942 and was discharged Sept. 7, 1945.
Mae Julia Callaway was born March 12, 1879 and died April 6, 1957. She is shown in the 1940 Wilkes County census as Julia Callaway, age 60 with Alex Callaway, age 55 and 4 children and 5 grandchildren in the household. She was the daughter of Abraham Giddens, born 1848 and his wife, Mary, born 1852.
Jesse Briton was born September 25, 1892 and died May 21, 1948. Jesse Briton, Jr. is shown in the 1940 Wilkes County census as age 48 with wife Essie Binn Briton, age 38 and ten children. His cemetery marker indicates he served in WWI.
John Thomas Isabell was born November 17, 1924 and died September 2, 1946. His draft registration card shows he was 6’ tall, 190 lbs. with brown eyes, black hair, and dark brown complexion. He was the son of Darden and Mary Isabell. He served in WWII. He enlisted May 24, 1944 and was honorably discharged April 28, 1946. He was in the 320th AA Balloon Bn, Btry C, 320th AA. He died less than 6 months after his discharge from the army.
Rural cemeteries in Georgia contain many unmarked graves. Sometimes there was no marker at all and sometimes wooden ones were used that soon disappeared altogether. Many times the only affordable option was a simple fieldstone, such as the one you see here, to mark the spot. This one was in the Cherry Grove cemetery which means the interment was likely sometime around the turn of the century. Many of the older rural cemeteries had far more unmarked than marked graves. The old cemetery at Cohentown had only two headstones out of 6o known graves. Unmarked graves were a sign of the times in the rural back country. It was all about economics and the situation of the individual families.
Martha Hanson (1848-1888) was the first wife of landowner Tom Hanson, with whom she bore nine of his ten children. According to family lore, Martha lost an arm in a cotton gin accident. She later developed a severe fever, from which she never recovered. Adjacent to the tombstone of Martha is that of her daughter-in-law, Lula May (Walton) Hanson (1882-1907) the wife of Tom Hanson, Jr. Theirs are the only two marked headstones in this historic cemetery. The rest of the fifty-eight interred are mostly identified with quartz field stones at the head and foot, oriented towards the East. The Cohentown Cemetery was established on land donated by Tom Hanson, who is presumed buried near that of his wife Martha. It is also presumed to be the final resting place of Peter Arnett, the founder of Cohentown, and some early settlers of this rural farming homestead, many of whom, born in Slavery.
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