Last year marked a momentous date in American history: four hundred years since Africans first set foot on North American shores in 1619. Early in 2019, Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center in Portal, GA decided that they would commemorate this by conducting tours of all thirty-four known African American cemeteries in Bulloch County. This series, called “If These Cemeteries Could Talk,” usually consists of one tour per month. Tours frequently begin at a church, garnering participation from local ministers, church members, and other attendees from the community. After an introductory program, everyone heads into the cemetery to hear the stories of those buried there, with emphasis on formerly enslaved people. Now, a year and a half later, Willow Hill has conducted fifteen tours, with nineteen still remaining.
However, Dr. Alvin Jackson, the board president at Willow Hill, quickly saw that COVID-19 was changing those plans. “ We realized it was not a good idea to have a lot of individuals meeting. We wanted to maintain social distancing and mitigate exposure to the coronavirus.” Therefore, Willow Hill decided to move the cemetery tour series completely online.
Fortunately, this transition was not too difficult, as they already made use of Facebook live to broadcast the tours to those who could not attend in person. Since the pandemic, it has become their main platform to disseminate information to the public. Dr. Jackson and one or two knowledgeable people (at a safe distance) conduct a tour through a given cemetery, highlighting individual people buried there. Meanwhile his daughter Wiloise Jackson Harper records the video which she broadcasts live on the Facebook page.
Dr. Jackson says that the online version of the project has reached people that otherwise could not have attended the tours. A great number of African American residents left Bulloch County for cities in the North and Midwest during the late 1800s and early 1900s. This movement is known as the Great Migration. Through these video tours, people whose families have long left Bulloch County are able to reconnect with their family’s history and learn more about the lives of their ancestors.
“Facebook Live tours will continue until the pandemic is over and we know it is safe to allow people to come back,” Dr. Jackson says. “It is our way of protecting individuals.” In addition to the tours, Dr. Jackson is also creating research guides for each cemetery.
People can find the online tours at Willow Hill’s Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/WHHRC/. Their most recent video tour is of Cone Cemetery in Ivanhoe, Georgia. The programs for the tours are all available online through Digital Commons at Georgia Southern’s Henderson Library.”