Historic Church Site to be Restored in Athens, GA
Tucked away in a quiet neighborhood in Athens, GA, on a small lot behind the Whitehead Road Elementary School, lies a mostly forgotten memorial to the history of this town and this country. Once at the heart of a vibrant community, it’s now overgrown with vines and saplings, easy to pass by if you don’t know it’s there.
The St. James Baptist Church Cemetery dates from the 1800s, although exactly when it was founded nobody knows for sure. The original St. James congregation held services under a brush harbor in what was known as the Kinney District or the Rabbit Eye Community northwest of Athens before moving to a log cabin on the property of Deacon Louis Dious. In 1912, a new building was constructed near the Oconee Heights railroad station, incorporating lumber from the cabin which had collapsed during a service as congregants were singing “Come Out the Wilderness“. The building was bricked in 1974 and today stands at 3685 Jefferson Road.
The cemetery, located at 125 Roberts Road, holds the graves of people born into slavery, graves of sharecrop farmers marked with hand carved stones, of prosperous families marked with granite monuments, of veterans of American wars, and others whose names and memorials have been lost to time and accident. It is just about all that’s left of the old Oconee Heights, an African American farming community centered around the church and its one-room schoolhouse, a cotton gin, a farrier, a grist mill, the Rabbit Eye juke joint run by the Lumpkins, and the Richard Martin store where goods were bartered or purchased on credit until crops could be sold.
In the mid 1900s the community dissolved as young people abandoned farm work and houses without modern services or utilities, seeking manufacturing jobs and homes with electricity and indoor plumbing. Beginning in the 1970s, the old farming area was covered over as new paved roads and residential subdivisions were constructed on the now idle farmland. But memories of Oconee Heights live on, and Athens residents who grew up there still swap stories of family, faith, hard work, good times, troubles, and a lifestyle now almost entirely vanished from America. But when that generation has passed, these memories will pass with them unless steps are taken now to preserve that heritage for the future.
To honor this year’s National Day of Service and Remembrance, three organizations — Athens Area Habitat for Humanity, Thrivent Financial, and Friends of the St. James Baptist Church Cemetery — are teaming up with the church to clear and clean the graveyard in preparation for an anticipated rehabilitation and mapping of the site by Historic Athens, which has received a grant from the Watson-Brown Foundation to reclaim and restore the historic cemetery. According to Historic Athens’ executive director Tommy Valentine, the organization’s primary goals are to stabilize and secure the site and to have it entered into the National Register of Historic Places. Next phases would involve discovery of unmarked graves and a complete mapping of all gravesites on the property.
The event is scheduled for Saturday, September 14th, and is sponsored by Thrivent Financial as part of its annual Building on Faith program. Volunteers are asked to donate an hour of their time between 8:00 AM and 12 noon. Athens Area Habitat will provide tools, gloves, and refreshments.
“Building on Faith is an amazing program by Thrivent, which is Habitat’s biggest partner nationwide,” says Spencer Frye, executive director of Athens Area Habitat. “Right now, we don’t have a build site that’s at a stage which can accommodate the number of volunteers we’re expecting, so we’re focusing on a community-building event that folks can come out to if they’re not able to volunteer on September 11th, our National Day of Service and Remembrance, which falls on a Wednesday this year. This Saturday event will offer an opportunity for people to help serve and remember this truly historic piece of our heritage which is in danger of being lost forever, and we hope that the folks who come out will learn a bit of history and make some new friends along the way.”
There will be a dedication of a new sign marking the historic site at 8:00 on Saturday the 14th at the cemetery at 125 Roberts Road, followed by a clean-up organized by the Habitat construction crew until 12 noon.