Written by Caro Moya
For Julie Barnes, a Savannah native and local historian, Laurel Grove Cemetery is a crucial part of our city’s character.
Graduated from John Hopkins University with a degree in History and Historical Preservation, she is currently studying the cemetery’s past in order to draw awareness to the often-neglected space.
“Laurel Grove has been terribly vandalized,” Barnes said. “Because of where it is, it doesn’t get a lot of attention.”
By shining a light on its historical significance and value, she hopes to pique the interest of tourists and locals and restore its original allure.
Laurel Grove’s story dates back to the pre-Civil War era when it was once a part of Springfield Plantation, known as the oldest plantation in Georgia. Originally one of the first rice plantations in the area, it was bought by the City of Savannah in 1850 due to overcrowding at what is now Colonial Park Cemetery and other burial grounds of the time.
Overshadowed by more popular cemeteries such as Bonaventure, the final resting place for several important figures of 19th Century Savannah and Georgia often go overlooked. Popular graves include that of Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts, James Pierpont, composer of “Jingle Bells,” and Florence Martus, a legendary Savannah figure dubbed “The Waving Girl.” A monument to Martus stands in Morrell Park on the east end of River Street.
An entire section dedicated to the men who fought in the Civil War is the burial place of an estimated 1,500 Confederate soldiers and eight prominent generals. Other members include the original owners of the Sorrel-Weed House and Savannah’s Habersham Family, strong political figures throughout Georgia’s colonial, revolutionary, and post-war period.
“To me, Laurel Grove is a testament to who we really are as a town,” said Barnes. “These are the people that built it, made the laws, fought the battles, the women that suffered through it and helped build this town up again.”
A highway divides the property into Laurel Grove North and Laurel Grove South, but the most impacting division is found within the burials themselves. The north is a burial ground for whites and the south is the resting place for African Americans, referred to as “people of color and slaves” at the time of its creation.
It is one of the oldest black cemeteries still in use today and is home to the graves of some the most important African Americans in Savannah’s history. These include Andrew Bryan, founder of the city’s First African Baptist Church and Westley Wallace (W.W.) Law, a key player in Savannah’s Civil Rights movement.
It also has a unique architectural and landscaping charm; it was designed at a time when cemeteries would often be simultaneously used as parks.
“Laurel Grove has the largest concentration of English and Georgian of what you call cemetery or garden tiles in the country,” said Barnes. Intricate headstones, iron works and commissioned statues decorate the acreage.
A firm believer in the phrase, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it,” Barnes believes it is necessary for everyone to be aware of their city’s past.
“History unites us all. People are losing their roots, the more we know about each other, the less conflicts there will be,” Barnes said. “If you do it right, if you dig deep enough, we’re all American and that’s all that matters.”