Originally created 08/28/99

Woman returns to help workers excavate cemetery



When Martha Jones was 12 years old, she'd spend her recess time with her dad.

Otis Jones was buried in an old cemetery next to the Community Schoolhouse on Columbia Road. She was only 21-months-old when he died of pneumonia in November 1936, and doesn't remember if she even went to his funeral.

But she remembers the afternoons she spent at his grave.

"That's why I know he was buried up there and not down here by the highway," she said Thursday, standing in the shade of a Saturn billboard near the corner of Maple Creek Drive and Columbia Road.

This week Ms. Jones, now 65 and a retired registered nurse, spent her afternoons at the cemetery again. She drove 13 hours Sunday from her home in Detroit to watch archaeological crew excavate the old Mt. Zion Baptist Church cemetery. They were tapping into her history and she wanted help guide them along -- offering the location of the since-burned church and some of the graves to the best of her recollection.

"They are doing a good job," she said, as workers brushed away dirt from a skelton in an excavated grave behind her. "They are very careful and caring. I like that."

The three-person crew from New South Associates, Inc., spent four days on the .55 acre lot, which is now owned by First Union National Bank as trustee for the M.T. Gray Living Trust. The bank hopes to eventually sell the property, but needed to remove the graves first.

The graves are part of the original Mt. Zion Baptist Church cemetery. The church sanctuary burned in 1933. The church moved to it's current location off Morrison Road in 1939.

In the more than five decades since the cemetery was abandoned, burial records have disappeared. Researchers found only Ms. Jones' sister -- Augusta-resident Myrtis Jones Terry -- when initially searching for descendants of people buried in the cemetery. Ms. Jones found out about the grave removal after reading an article in The Augusta Chronicle while visiting her sister.

"No one from the family down here called me," she said.

Thomas R. Wheaton, vice president of New South, said an initial survey of the property showed 17 potential grave sites. Of those, 10 turned out to be actual graves.

Ms. Jones said the company's initial inspection did not encompass all the graves in the original cemetery.

"There were far more graves than this, but with the cornerstones and all gone, they can't really tell," she said.

Mr. Wheaton said the graves were identified as depressions on the site. The group uses a backhoe to break ground and dig down three or four feet. Then workers excavate the rest of the grave by hand -- revealing bones and other artifacts using a trowel and paintbrush.

"When we get out here it is dark," said Mr. Wheaton, who has been arriving at the site before 7 a.m. "We can't really see what we are doing for the first 10 minutes."

After the 17 depressions were excavated, the crew used the backhoe to trench the property in search of other graves. That led to five more graves.

Mr. Wheaton said the graves provide an interesting look into the lives of the people buried there. One body had a poorly set broken leg. Another had a gold front tooth in a set of dentures. Workers also found scraps of nylon stockings, amber beads, a comb, a Liberty dime fashioned into a pendant and a tie tack emblazoned with a hunting dog.

In all the crew found 15 graves -- nine men and six females, all adults.

"That doesn't mean there weren't children buried here, we just didn't find them," Mr. Wheaton said, adding that without headstones and a viable record of the cemetery it is very difficult to identify any to the remains. In fact, he wasn't sure if the crew had even found Ms. Jones' father.

But he's sure they didn't find Albert Jones, Martha's brother who was stillborn in January 1937.

"Back then they were buried in a shoebox," she said, adding she really didn't expect the crews to find Albert. "That's what my mother told me."

After removal from the Columbia Road site, the bodies were buried in Mt. Zion's current cemetery off Morrison Road. Church officials have planned a small memorial ceremony for today, said church deacon Levert Lane.

Mr. Lane said the church is designing a marker for the graves, but was unsure when the marker would be placed.

Ms. Jones won't be at the ceremony Saturday, but her sister will, she said.

"They didn't find my father," Ms. Jones said. "I don't think they went far enough over."

First Union is paying for the excavation and reinterment, which officials estimate will cost more than $10,000. The exact cost has yet to be determined.

"We wanted to do this the right way," said David Dunay, assistant vice president for First Union. "I think Saturday will be a great day. Then these graves can be cared for like they should have been for all these years."

Jason B. Smith can be reached at 868-1222, Ext. 115, or jbsmith@augustachronicle.com.