Black families used south Bibb County cemetery beyond slavery era, DOT finds

It’s perhaps a little ironic that history is coming alive at a graveyard.

In south Bibb County near the Middle Georgia Regional Airport, archaeologists have been working since April on behalf of the Georgia Department of Transportation to uncover a cemetery of unmarked graves.

Originally, it was thought that the cemetery served as the final resting place only for the slaves who worked on the McArthur family plantation.

But Hugh Matternes, a mortuary archaeologist for New South Associates, pointed to recent evidence found at the grave sites — including bits of pottery and a metal coffin handle — that indicate that black families continued to use the site as a burial plot once slaves were freed.

“It is post-emancipation,” he said. “(The cemetery) probably started during the slave period. ... But we’re dealing with a longer period of time. We originally thought this was a slave-period cemetery. But (the McArthur family) still allowed African-Americans to bury their dead in the area, which was not very common at the time.”

So far, 38 graves have been found at the site.

Matternes said that indicated the McArthur and the emancipated families maintained fairly good relations after slavery ended, which was relatively rare during that era.

Relations among descendents of those families continue to be strong. They have worked together over the past few years, exchanging genealogical information to get a better understanding of their families’ histories.

Anna Crum of Jackson, a great-great-granddaughter of John McArthur, said she and her family were invited to a gathering among the family of the slaves’ descendents a couple of years ago.

“It was a really nice occasion for all of us,” she said. “It was not at all awkward. Everybody hugged each other. ... Everything was very positive.”

Roquanza Boyd of Macon, a descendent of the slaves, and several members of his family watched the archaeologists work Tuesday.

“We never knew any of this was out here,” Boyd said. “There’s a very great possibility that I have family buried here. It’s a very great possibility that my ancestors are buried here. ... This is a wonderful event.”

Descendents of the McArthurs and the slave families — Matternes said the graveyard contains at least three distinct family groupings — were present at the dig site Tuesday morning to get an update on the archaeologists’ progress.

Significant progress has been made. Originally, initial estimates made by the archaeological team indicated there were fewer than a dozen people buried at the site.

As of Tuesday, that number was at 38, said Sara Gale, an archaeologist with the DOT. And there may be more. Gale said the excavation site will be widening so the borders of the cemetery can be clearly defined.

Also, researchers will attempt to collect DNA samples from the remains they find and use the samples to identify the people buried in unmarked graves. Based on old historical documents, researchers have determined the names of the slaves the McArthur family owned.

The archaeological investigation came about a couple of months ago when the DOT was doing research as part of its preparations to extend Sardis Church Road. Gale consulted an old map of the property, and workers found evidence of graves on the site.

Mortuary archaeologists, using everything from ground-penetrating radar to cadaver dogs, were able to confirm the presence of the cemetery.

Gale said the cost for this phase of the project is about $279,000, which includes transporting the remains to another Bibb County cemetery where other slaves and their descendents are buried. Gale declined to name the cemetery, since a formalized agreement hasn’t yet been signed.

Crystal Paulk-Buchanan, a spokeswoman for the DOT, said a Black History Month presentation and a documentary film are being produced about the gravesite. She said the Sardis Church Road project likely won’t be delayed since it isn’t due to begin until next April.

Meanwhile, Matternes and his team continues to gather information about the site, such as how the individuals were buried.

“We’re looking at other African-American cemetery earmarks,” he said. “It’s following a similar folk pattern.”

Information from The Telegraph’s archives was used in this report. To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.