Jim Harris went searching for something in East Georgia, just outside of Athens, but came away with a passion for something else.
He went to a few cemeteries around Oglethorpe County looking for his grandfather's grave but didn’t have any luck. In the process, though, he found a few cemeteries in need of some care.
He finally found his grandfather’s grave, but the search scratched an itch that’s turned into a bit of a passion project.
“We went to several places that you'd have to be standing on top of it before you'd realize it was a cemetery,” said Harris, a Hall County resident. “I mean, it just didn’t look like that. It had deteriorated over time and had been let go.”
He brought back his newfound passion to Forsyth County, where his “family ties are deep,” and has teamed up with some friends, along with the Historical Society of Cumming/Forsyth County, to bring back to life a cemetery in Cumming that’s been forgotten.
“We share a passion for history and recognizing the idea that these are not just graves,” Harris said. “These are lives, people that had families. There are people that cared about them. … They deserve our respect, and they deserve their final resting place to be treated respectfully.”
Tucked in the woods between two neighborhoods in Cumming, the Stoney Point Cemetery is surrounded by a black, chain link fence — not because someone wanted to treat it well, but because it had to be done for development to spring up nearby.
The only way to get to the cemetery is through the woods. You have to duck for tree branches, step over fallen trees and dodge thorn patches. It’s the walk Harris and others have taken, chain saws, leaf blowers, shovels in hand, to get to the cemetery of the old Stoney Point Colored Baptist Church many times.
According to Garland Bagley, who wrote the first volume of “Forsyth County History,” the church was founded in the late 1800s and was attended by African Americans from near and far.
The church was ultimately abandoned in 1912 as the black population was pushed out of the county.
In September of that year, Rob Edwards, a black man, was stripped nude, beaten and killed in his jail cell by a mob of at least 2,000 white residents after being arrested the day before in connection with the alleged rape and murder of Sleety Mae Crow, a white Forsyth County resident. After his death, Edwards’ body was dragged through downtown Cumming and hanged from a telephone pole.
Along with a similar incident days before in which another white woman was allegedly attacked by two black men, the end result was the county’s black population, with an estimated 1,100 residents in 1910, according to Census records, was forced out of the county.
Two other black men, Ernest Knox and Oscar Daniel, who were arrested at the same time as Edwards, were found guilty for the crime and executed by hanging.
The Stoney Point Baptist Church building, which was likely much smaller than the homes that surround the area now, stood just north of the cemetery. All that’s left now is evidence of some of the foundation along with the overgrown plot of land.
Though it will be a long process, Harris is hoping some of the descendants of the church will be able to come back and pay their respects to their relatives, many of whom have been forgotten and lost as the cemetery has deteriorated.
“There's a lot of these stones that we're hoping, when we get everything cleaned off, that we might be able to take some chemicals for the purpose of this and identify some engravings and come up with more names other than the obvious ones,” Harris said, pointing to a headstone for Olivia Strickland that was standing nearby. “And hopefully we’re able to track down some of these folks' descendants.”
They’ve blown leaves to the sides of the cemetery, thrown branches over the fence and cut away at larger trees that have fallen all around. They’ve uncovered and cleaned up some of the headstones, many of which are broken in half, lying in the dirt. Some of the headstones date back to the late 1800s.
The goal is to clean it all up with some landscaping and add a few benches so people can visit and remember those who are buried there. They also want to add a road or path for access to the cemetery.
“We’re trying to get all the leaves off, get everything blown to the side and out of the way and kind of survey the area,” said Jimmy McConnell, co-president of the historical society with his wife, Martha. “We’re trying to find more stones and rocks like we’ve already uncovered and, if possible, be able to mend some of those stones back.”
It’s not any old cleanup job, though. It's a cemetery, so everyone who steps in tries to treat it with as much respect as possible.
“You've got to be careful with how you do it,” Harris said. “This wouldn't work with turning 20 people loose in here, because you could end up moving stones and missing things. So you have to kind of do a very controlled pattern, and you don't need a lot of people.”
It could be easy to forget what you're working on or what you’re cleaning while you’re in the thick of it, but George Pirkle, a historian with the historical society, said everyone who’s helped out has shown the respect he’d hope for.
“It comes naturally,” Pirkle said. “Sometimes they walk in and it's just like a hush that falls. If they're motivated enough to come out here, then they're going to be motivated enough to show some respect.”
But to some, visiting a cemetery might not come naturally at all. Harris said he grew up with cemetery visits as a monthly ritual, paying respect to some of his close family and friends. It’s something he doesn’t think many people do nowadays but hopes comes back around.
“When I was a kid, you made a journey to the cemetery and you paid respect to your grandparents and aunts and uncles,” Harris said. “This is a place to connect to your past, connect to your history and pay respect.”
So with the cleaning up, he hopes more people will visit the cemetery, whether they know those who are buried there or not, so they’re able to do just that.
“If people could come in and see some parts of history and pay their respects to people that were here, I think that’s a win, and we go on to the next one and try to do it again,” Harris said.
Forsyth County News reporter Kelly Whitmire contributed to this article.