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Effort to rediscover lost historical graves in Thomasville underway

Updated: Jun. 19, 2021 at 4:54 AM EDT
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THOMASVILLE, Ga. (WCTV) - An abandoned church property on the north side of Thomasville may not look like much to the naked eye, but those who grew up attending services there remember its history.

Now, a random encounter could be paving the way for a new future for the property.

“I was wandering the back roads and came across this beautiful church that was just kind of falling apart,” said local photographer Amanda Yates.

Yates said she was immediately enchanted by the old Midway CME Church off Midway Road, so she stopped to take some photographs. That action led to a conversation with the groundskeeper.

“He told me about the work that he’s done the past three years and the abandoned graves of the enslaved that are still in the woods and how he has single-handedly done the work himself,” she told WCTV’s Katie Kaplan.

Since then, Yates has not been able to get the church, or the groundskeeper, off her mind.

“Sometimes you have to be careful for what you ask for because God sent me two helpers,” said Aundre Walker holding up a gardening tool in each hand.

WCTV first connected with Walker back in June of 2018. At that time the property surrounding the church was completely overgrown. Walker has been making slow and steady progress since then.

“These graves out there date back to the early 1800s while slavery was going on, so a lot of those guys laying there were ex-slaves. We’re trying to get them out of the bushes,” he explained. “Then you’ve got graves here in the bushes that need to be taken out of and cleaned.”

At least two graves belong to U.S. soldiers, with one headstone marked as a WWI veteran. It is unknown exactly how many graves are hidden in the brush.

Walker has been able to clear the dirt drive, the area around the church, and a small section of graves behind it. He has cleaned some of the headstones and has started to add gravel to the area between some of the graves.

His passion is fueled by his own history and the legacy of countless, untraceable others.

Midway CME closed for good roughly 15 years ago. Many members of the congregation transferred to Bethlehem CME, according to Pastor Jennifer Gatlin.

Very little has been documented on the history of Midway CME Church. The building’s cornerstone is engraved with the year 1897 and newspaper articles from the 1970s provided by the Thomasville History Center reference a centennial celebration and note the church was founded by slaves- at one time boasting 200 members.

The following history that has been handed down orally was provided to WCTV by Bethlehem CME Elder Bobby Goliday regarding Midway CME’s roots:

“The CME (Christian Methodist Episcopal) Church, which was organized immediately after the end of slavery as a separate denomination from the Methodist Episcopal Church South. Officially the CME Church was organized in 1870. This particular Church was active as a Brush harbor church in the early 1800s. The hush harbor, also known as a brush harbor or a bush arbor, was a secluded informal structure, often built with tree branches, set in places away from masters so that slaves could meet to worship in private.”

Several bricks believed to be from the initial structure still appear to be embded in the dirt a few yards from the old church structure, said Yates. Many gravestones have been reclaimed by the south Georgia forest and are covered by dirt and foliage. There is no telling how many people are buried there.

That is part of the reason that Yates felt called to organize help for Walker’s effort.

“It’s the significance of the people who built this town and the fact they’re laid to rest and they’re neglected and they deserve honor and respect,” she said. “No one deserves to be forgotten, especially people who had lived their entire lives oppressed, neglected, and disrespected.”

Yates has started documenting the tombstones online on ‘FindAGrave.com’ so that future generations can look up the resting spots of their ancestors. She is meeting with a professional landscaper at the site next week to get a feel for how much work and what kinds of tools need to be used.

She also created a Facebook page where the public can sign up to help during clean-up days and has started a GoFundMe page to try and raise money to rent machinery for the job.

“I’m going to need a lot of help with clearing out the land. It’s very grown over,” Yates said. “I think it’s gonna be more than just a weed-whacker and machetes. I believe it’s going to be heavy equipment.”

The stranger’s blessing is welcomed whole-heartedly by the man who has poured his into this project.

“If you want to come along and help, you’re more than welcome because I need it,” said Walker.

Yates and Walker are looking for volunteers who will offer time and/or equipment in an effort to conserve the cemetery. They need donations of professional services like landscaping, surveying, plaque making, etc. Anyone who can help should fill out this form.

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