By Mark Millican
When Jennifer Anderson and her husband Danny moved into the Yukon community of Gilmer County, just a few miles from the Pickens County line, some of the residents told her about a cemetery where Black slaves were buried.
A single headstone in the plot at the intersection of Raven Cliff Road and John Teem Road reads, “Mary Rose, early 1800s.” Other graves are marked with fieldstones that have no writing.
“Somebody speculated about a name of Rose and put a stone here with that name on it, but I have researched that and we do not know who she is,” Anderson said. “We do know that in 1881 there was a Black school here.”
She and Susan Noles, both avid historical researchers and members of the Capt. James Kell Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, have led the charge to get the old graveyard cleaned up and recognized.
“Jennifer told me about it and I drove over here,” Noles recalled during a tour of what is now known as the Rose Cemetery. “We had to push the fence over to climb in! It might have slaves, but I think it’s more freedmen. We have done research on all the land lots in the area during that period of time in the late 1800s. There were around 13 or 15 Black families in this community. We have had a man tell us there was a Black church down here by a little creek, but we haven’t located the foundation.”
Anderson said the land adjoining the cemetery was once owned by an African-American freedman and preacher named Henry Wright, who probably pastored the church. In March of last year, the Gilmer County Genealogy Society and DAR members pitched in to hire Omega Mapping to do a ground-penetrating radar search.
“There were a few grave markers, so the man who used the radar marked the graves for us and then we put the stones in to designate a grave is there,” said Anderson. “There were a couple that were sunk in and we filled those with dirt. There are 67 graves, and four of them are in caskets and the rest of them are in shrouds. He could tell that by the radar.”
Amazingly, the mapping also found five graves held babies, there are 10 where children or teenagers are interred, and the rest are adults.
“Each grave is marked with fieldstones for both the headstones and the footstones,” Noles said. “A 10-inch metal pin is located in the middle of each grave to ensure it is never lost again. If the pin gets covered with dirt and debris, a metal detector can be used to find that grave.”
Just getting the cemetery visible for passers-by to see – and interested citizens to visit and perhaps sit on a bench to absorb the ambient natural beauty – was a Herculean effort because of the decades of neglect. But when neighbors learned of the potential historic significance of the site, they joyfully pitched in to help.
“There’s a group of 25 of us who have worked on the cemetery at different times, clearing brush and trees,” Anderson said. “Susan and I pulled out barbed wire and an old mattress, and I still pull up bottles every time it rains. There was a fence around it, but it was all grown up so that you could not even see the fence.”
Others have volunteered to work as well. One longtime resident stopped by when Noles and Anderson were clearing brush in the cemetery and said he never knew it was there. When the pair mentioned some stumps needed to be cut out, he said he would do it later and the next time they arrived the stumps were gone.
Noles pointed out what now can be clearly seen.
“This is an original headstone – it says F.E.B., and born in 1836 or 1886, it’s hard to make out,” she knelt down to reveal. “And on the bottom it says H.A.R. It may be someone’s initials. We’ve tried to research who lived in this area, but haven’t found a match.”
Anderson said Billy Bernhardt, the former sheriff and coroner of Gilmer County, told the researchers he was familiar with the cemetery.
“He told us that somewhere near that gate there was a headstone that said Rhoda Jane Roberts, he saw it a long time ago,” she related. “But we haven’t been able to find it.”
There’s also a heretofore-unfounded legend that some Black members of the military are buried in the Rose Cemetery.
“We have had a couple of people tell us a Black soldier is buried here – and these two people don’t know each other,” added Anderson. “If we could prove there are Black soldiers buried here, we could get it recognized and historically marked by the state.”
Noles mentioned that a big question left hanging is, “Where did everybody’s families go?” That’s where they’re hoping Pickens County Progress readers can help out.
“We would like to learn who the people are who are buried here,” she said. “We know some families, like the Jacksons, are buried at Talona on the Gilmer County side. That is what we would love to do, find and connect the families. Unless they have records, we may not ever be able to prove they were here, but their families who remain may still know something or have some documentation about them.”
Research is ongoing to identify people and their families who are buried in Rose Cemetery. Anyone who thinks they know of possible connections is asked to email Jennifer Anderson and Susan Noles at email@example.com.