Teacher's tombstone ends mysterious trip

More than 20 years ago, the headstone of a prominent black teacher from the 1800s mysteriously vanished from its Augusta resting spot.


The 3-foot stone was placed near the back porch of the Lucy C. Laney residence after a fire destroyed the home in 1986. The next day, the tombstone was gone and its whereabouts unknown -- until recently.

The headstone for Cora Freeman, who died in 1888 at the age of 26, stands in the middle of an Evans development. The inscription reveals that she was a "teacher and friend" and a "Christian educator."

One man knew exactly who Ms. Freeman was. He had seen her headstone at the Laney home after the fire.

"I noticed at the back porch, at the back step, that stone was lying on the ground at Ms. Laney's house," said Jimmy Carter, an Augusta historian. "When I went back the next day, the stone was gone.

"It was a puzzle to me. Why would somebody walk away with a tombstone? What are they going to do with it, and where is it? We never saw it again."

The headstone is now in a desolate area within the River Island planned unit development off Blackstone Camp Road. Neither the developers of the property nor a family of Freemans living nearby on Freeman Drive knew of the tombstone.

The missing headstone had also remained a mystery to Dr. Carter until he was contacted by Christine Miller-Betts, the executive director of the Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History, for information about Ms. Freeman.

"There's always someone who knows, and so it's just something you have to work very diligently at doing in regard to acquiring the information," Mrs. Miller-Betts said. "He knew right away what I was talking about."

As it turns out, Freeman's life story is just as intriguing as her headstone's bewildering trip.

The Massachusetts native came to Augusta to teach in 1885 at the Haines Normal and Industrial Institute, according to a 1939 entry in the school's yearbook.

"She was tenderhearted, kind, faithful and possessed the kind of personality which made her one greatly to be admired, even to this day," a passage in the yearbook says.

In fact, Freeman was the first teacher Laney hired at the school, Dr. Carter said.

The teacher, according to the passage, also helped Laney bear "burdens and trials" when the school suffered from a lack of funding and various epidemics.

"Obviously, she was impressive enough for Ms. Laney to take her on," Dr. Carter said. "She was widely respected and loved by everybody -- students, staff, the community."

Freeman was stricken with typhoid fever in 1888, but even her death is riddled with mystery. According to an Augusta Chronicle article from 1888, Freeman was mistakenly administered quinine to treat the fever and suffered effects from the drug.

The illness, not the mistake, caused her death, the story said.

The coroner was never notified, and Freeman's friends didn't dispute the cause of death, according to the article.

"The mere fact that they're reiterating that this mistaken drug had nothing to do with her death makes me suspect," Dr. Carter said. "That raises a flag with me."

Freeman's funeral was held at the Haines campus on what is now Laney-Walker Boulevard.

She was buried in Hill Cemetery near Summerville Cemetery on Fitten Street in Augusta.

"Many African-Americans who made tremendous contributions during that period of time were buried there," Mrs. Miller-Betts said.

How her headstone ended up in Columbia County remains unknown.

"It's had quite a travel, quite a trip," Dr. Carter said.

Dr. Carter and Mrs. Miller-Betts are eager to retrieve the tombstone and would like to place it back in Hill Cemetery or add the marker to Laney's burial site.

Regardless of its future placement, Dr. Carter said, the headstone needs to be returned to its rightful owners.

"It was not just hauled off," Dr. Carter said. "It was stolen. It really belongs at the Laney house."

Though some questions about the headstone might never be answered, Mrs. Miller-Betts and Dr. Carter are relieved to have found the marker.

"It's so seldom that you have a story like this, and you can really put it together," Mrs. Miller-Betts said. "This is amazing."

Reach Jenna Martin at (706) 868-1222, ext. 109, or jenna.martin@augustachronicle.com.


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