Thursday, April 8, 2021

A Pilgrimage

Easter weekend, I had the opportunity to travel to rural Georgia to explore backroads and visit some cemeteries. This was a sort-of homecoming for me. It may be strange saying that considering I had never been to this part of Georgia. But... this was the land of my ancestors. This was where pioneers, sharing my DNA, settled, worked, prayed, and died. I felt so much of a spiritual connection to these lands, I felt... home.

My first stop, after a 4 hour drive, was to the historic Jones Creek Baptist Church in Long County (formerly a part of Liberty County.) This church and cemetery was special to me because, although it was a small church in a very rural area of Georgia, I had numerous ancestors from various lines of my family tree attend here. In fact, my 5th great grandfather, Moses Westberry, was the first preacher and one of the founders of the church which was formed in 1810. As I researched Moses, I realized that he wasn't the only one. Charles and Martha Flowers were in the first group of congregants to leave Beards Creek Baptist Church and attend Jones Creek. Richard and Mary Hendley Horne were listed as early congregants. In 1856, their son, Hendley Foxworth Horne, built the old church building that stands today. Although simple in construction and style, it is a testament to the 19th century building practices and has stood the test of time through hurricanes, storms, harsh winters, and the insufferable southern Summer humidity. 

I strolled around the building silently and imagined the lives of those who came before us. These were a simple folk. Workers of the land. God fearing. These were my people. I stepped into the cemetery and began noticing the names of the headstones. I began recognizing more and more surnames. They were names I have seen before in my tree. Names that now felt more real to me. These were real people. This is where they congregated, met their future spouses, held important meetings, and now reside for eternity. My people.

As I finished walking through the hallowed grounds, I had noticed the creek that ran next to the property. This was Jones Creek. It was here that many of my people were baptized. This was their holy water. What a sight it was. It was a brief look into the past. The running creek flowed through the Georgia foliage, under the trees that have shaded these waters for many years. This creek washed the sins away of my people. I stood in awe, as if time had stopped. It was here, within the natural beauty of this land that I saw a slight hill that went down to the waters. This must have been where Moses led his people for their baptism. This was where spiritual lives changed.

I noticed there were more graves in the woods behind the fence of the cemetery. I was puzzled by this. Were these graves a part of the cemetery? A sign on an old wooden outbuilding answered my question. This was the "black cemetery." These graves were not out in the open within the fence of a well-manicured cemetery. These were under the same trees that shadowed the creek. The land wasn't as tidy. The leaves crunched under my feet as I noticed indentions in the ground. These were probably graves too. No marker to give their name. These could have been graves of the enslaved. They could have been graves of the poor who couldn't afford a headstone. Perhaps they once had wooden markers that have disintegrated over the years. There were quite a few that had headstones. People with names. Regardless of age, race, sex, or societal rank; they were people at peace under the hallowed trees besides their holy creek. They may have worked for decades in the fields, under the hot sun; but now they were shaded. Protected by the trees. With one another. In death, they were in paradise.

My stop at Jones Creek originally, was to see the church where my people worshipped. To see the earth where my people remain. But it was so much more. It was here, at Jones Creek, where I felt something more than a genealogical quest. Here I felt the sacred ground. Here I walked the earth of my ancestors. Here I felt a connection. Here... I felt... home.  

The following is video footage from my visit to Jones Creek. 

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