Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories on efforts to reclaim Strathy Hall Cemetery, where the remains of more than 100 slaves were interred. Read the first story here.
The push to restore Strathy Hall Cemetery for Richard Appleton began in earnest in 2019 when he saw a post about the overgrown, brush- and vine-choked cemetery on social media.
“I didn’t even know there was a cemetery there, it was so overgrown,” Appleton said.
One thing led to another, and by February Appleton had convinced the property’s owner to sign the 2.7 acres over to a nonprofit formed to restore the cemetery and turn it into a memorial.
The reason why he did seems simple enough.
“Somebody had to do it,” Appleton said. “Somebody had to take ownership of it.”
In part, that was because not knowing who owned the property was an obstacle to relatives and others who felt they’d be trespassing if they came into the cemetery.
That alone meant getting physical ownership of the land was critical if the restoration was to move forward, Appleton said.
As owner of the Strathy Hall Plantation House, which was built centuries ago by the enslaved and which he bought two years ago, Appleton felt getting the land was up to him.
“The NAACP and all the other volunteers are doing all they can, but fundamentally, someone had to take ownership and I was in a situation best suited for it.” Along the way, Appleton credits a number of people with bringing the historic cemetery where Strathy Hall Plantation’s enslaved were buried, and some descendants, back into the greater public eye and giving the project life.
Local NAACP member Sandra Workman, for one. Johnnie Quiller, the president of the Bryan County NAACP, for another.
And Girl Scout Troop 30261, led by Rachel Gold, as yet another.
And the Strathy Hall neighborhood itself, Appleton said.
“The neighborhood is really into it,” he said, adding that when he posted something Sunday on the Strathy Hall Cemetery Facebook page announcing he’d be out at the cemetery working, he was met by a line of golf carts driven by neighbors armed with rakes and shovels and axes.
Not long ago, the NAACP Youth spent time cleaning up. And Quiller, who first learned about the cemetery in 2019 from a neighbor who works for code enforcement, said another NAACP Youth cleanup is scheduled for Sept. 19.
Still, Appleton remains the man who has been at the center of restoration efforts.
“Thank God we had Mr. Appleton,” said Quiller, who said the NAACP is working with him, the families of descendants and other groups on the cemetery to “restore it, beautify it, maintain it and keep it that way, hopefully for eternity.”
Appleton said Quiller has been one of the volunteers who’s worked hard to see the project is carried out.
“Johnnie’s been a great help,” Appleton said.
And here the story takes a few turns. There’s Appleton’s own personal history – still only in his 30s, he’s an engineer whose family left Zimbabwe after the country’s leadership took land from white farmers. These days he’s a U.S. citizen and has a business that refits yachts in Savannah.
“I know what it’s like to be a minority,” he said. “I come from a country in Africa where I was a minority.”
Perhaps in part due to that, Appleton roundly condemns efforts to destroy past history.
“History is the father of education” he said. “Every form of education we have today is basically a history lesson built on what came before.”
Strathy Hall Cemetery teaches that lesson, because it reminds one “if we do not keep that side of history alive, we’re destined to make those mistakes again,” Appleton said.
“When I see people destroying historical monuments, or people terminating history for some arbitrary reason, as disheartening as it can be to keep some bad historical archives alive, if we do not keep that side of history alive I believe we’re destined to make those mistakes again,” he said.
It can also make efforts to honor the past more difficult.
“When Gen. Sherman did his march to the sea, Sherman’s protest against slavery meant that every plantation he came across, he would burn it – burn it to the ground,” Appleton continued. “When he got here to Fort McAllister, he came up to Strathy Hall plantation house, and he didn’t burn the plantation house down, but what he did was he emptied the library on the front lawn and he burned every single document as a protest of slavery. What he did in protest of slavery was burn every record of these buried slaves here. So where he thought he was doing a wonderful thing in protest, he actually destroyed any bit of history we would have today to identify the names of people here resting.”
In the near future, a new information board put together by Girl Scout Troop 30261 will give visitors an updated map of the cemetery as well as more history on some of the local families who have ancestors buried there. A footpath through the cemetery is also in the works, as are continued efforts to clear tangled undergrowth and brush from a portion of the cemetery that likely wasn’t touched in 2012 when Georgia Southern students and the Richmond Hill Historical Society launched an effort to restore the cemetery.
Appleton said he hopes to bring the students back out to help identify more graves, and there are plans to set up a Gofundme account as well. Both Quiller and Appleton want to see the graveyard extended all the way to the river and a memorial built, but the plan is currently blocked by two uninhabited, run down houses standing in the way, one of which they say sits atop two known graves.
“We’re still trying to find the owner of those two houses,” Appleton said. “That’s been bothering both myself and the NAACP, because we know those houses are built on graves.”
Both Appleton and Quiller said the homes are part of a lawsuit and they haven’t been able to get much clarity or help from officials.
“Right now people are suing each other over it, and they’re suing each other over something that shouldn’t be there in the first place.”
Volunteers are welcome but should sign up on the Strathy Hall Cemetery Facebook page, Quiller said. Appleton requires volunteers to sign a waiver to make sure they won’t sue him or the nonprofit should they be injured while working on the site.
And while there’s conviction the cemetery needs to finally be restored, Appleton doesn’t feel the need to rush to get it completed tomorrow.
“It’s been like this for a long while now,” he said. “I don’t look at it as if it’s something to panic about and rush through to clear up. We want to go through and clear it methodically, and not damage anything. If you bump the wrong stone with a mower, it’s 250 years of history you just knocked to the ground.”