We pull up in front of a small Baptist church off the main road, just outside of Athens, Georgia. My brother leads us through some thick brush into the woods behind the parking lot. At the edge of the woods, there are a couple of modern gravestones.
We walk further into the woods. The last light of twilight is on the horizon.
Standing amidst the dark trees, we notice nothing out of the ordinary…at first. If you take a closer look at the ground, however, you will see them.
The graves. Where the slaves were buried.
They are barely recognizable—shallow depressions in the earth, just the size of a human body. All these years later, the earth still sinks down over the final resting places of these people. An unmarked flat stone has been placed at the head of each grave, the only manmade marker the tombs have received.
As we stand amidst the ancient stones and cold pine trees, my brother explains how he found out about the slave graveyard.
An acquaintance of my brother’s—a trucker—was passing by on the main road, when he was suddenly overcome with an upset stomach. The man had been fighting diarrhea for the past couple days, and pulled his truck into the first parking lot he could find, which happened to belong to the church. The man, unaware that there was anything unique about this particular patch of woods, ran off into the trees to relieve himself.
Only after he had pulled his pants back up did the trucker realize his enormous mistake.
He looked around and noticed the depressions in the earth, the flat stones placed at the heads of each grave. The trucker realized, horrified, that he had defecated in a graveyard.
He stood to leave and walked out of the woods quickly. Just as he was walking past the last graves, about to emerge out of the woods, he inexplicably slipped on the flat ground.
The trucker broke his ankle. “I’m not a superstitious man,” he told my brother—the cast still on his foot—“but that was a little too weird to be a coincidence.”
I’m struck by the brutal indifference of the final resting spot. Even in death, people who suffered the unspeakable horror of slavery were given only an unmarked plot and a small stone to be remembered by.
My mind fills with questions—was this graveyard established by the plantation owners, or by the slaves themselves? When it was actively being used as a graveyard for the recently deceased, how far was it from the plantation house? From the slaves’ quarters? Did this used to be a more carefully maintained cemetery, or has it always been an unmarked collection of graves amidst the trees? Is there any relation between the Baptist church that currently stands here and the ancient graveyard? Has this always been hallowed ground—did it used to be a spot of worship for the people who were buried here?
I walk deeper into the woods, towards the far edge of the ancient cemetery.
The trees grow thicker here, among the outermost graves. I can’t help but wonder about the unrecorded, forgotten ceremonies and rituals that took place here—people deprived of a history, a language, an identity, kept in chains visible and invisible, who gathered here to remember their dead.
I step over a fallen trunk, and stop to take a photograph of one of the taller pine trees. I raise my camera. Suddenly, dozens of dogs begin barking in the residential area across the road. An animal—I hope it’s an animal—rustles in the brush next to my foot. I rush back over the fallen tree and join the others, ready to get back to the car.
I stop briefly as we leave the forest, though, and turn back towards the hallowed ground. I cross myself, and say a silent prayer in honor of the nameless dead who rest here.