Cherry Grove Church & School

Wilkes County
Org 1875
Photography by John Kirkland

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.

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