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Willow Hill center offers rich, historical programs to community
willow hill
While roasting a chicken with a string "rotisserie," Clarissa Clifton renders some salt pork over an open fire in preparation for making hoe cakes during the Willow Hill Heritage Festival. Clifton, who is from Statesboro but now lives in Atlanta, is a food historian and prepared a number of traditional African-American dishes. She explained that hoe cakes got their name from the practice of slaves using the blade of their hoes for cooking in the fields. - photo by Scott Bryant

The Willow Hill Heritage & Renaissance Center, founded in 2004 and located in the Willow Hill School in Portal, is slated for a number of fascinating and informative programs and events that will take place throughout 2020. 

By the time this issue of Discovering Bulloch goes to print, some of the opportunities will have taken place, but as annual events, they’re worth noting for future reference, mentioned Dr. Gayle Jackson, development director of Willow Hill Heritage & Renaissance Center (WHHRC).

The WHHRC is an effort to preserve a piece of American history, namely, the founding and operation of Willow Hill School, established in 1874 by a group of former slaves to educate black children. Housed in the remnants of an old turpentine shanty, the school had only one stove to provide heat and one teacher to provide instruction, a 15-year-old former slave. Educating children for the next 125 years, the center now educates the community on those years in history.

It’s only fitting, then, that the first huge project of the year for the WHHRC is a collaboration with the Bulloch County School System.

“We partnered with schools for an essay and oratorical contest,” said Jackson. “We came up with the topic, ‘Liberty and Justice for all – what does that mean to me?’ and the essay contest is administered by the schools.”

Jackson said the WHHRC was thrilled with the partnership from the school system.

“The support from the Bulloch County Schools was much greater than expected. We’d hoped for at least a sponsorship, but they wanted to be completely involved,” she said.

Students participated by writing essays and winners were chosen by grade level, with one winner per school for grades K-2 and 3-5, and two winners per school for grades 6-8 and 9-12. Students then had the opportunity to take part in an oratorical contest, with monetary prizes given for first through third place.

Attorney Francys Johnson sponsored the contest.

“Oratory was a big deal at Willow Hill, as well as other African-American schools,” said Jackson. “It was a tradition. There was a lot of pride to be chosen to speak. We wanted to bring back the tradition, to encourage young people to speak and write. Part of what we’re doing at Willow Hill is preserving history and reviving positive traditions.”

The next big project for WHHRC that takes place throughout the year is their popular cemetery tours. Jackson’s husband, Dr. Alvin Jackson, spearheads most of the tours.

Alvin Jackson is quite the historian and has completed extensive research on local black history. A family medicine physician in Savannah, he and Gayle met while both were in graduate school in Ohio. After working there for years and coming to Portal periodically to work at the center, the couple made their home in the south permanent with a move four years ago.

“My husband started getting folks to clean up old cemeteries,” said Jackson. “We think it’s important to attempt to identify as many of the four million slaves buried in cemeteries all over. It’s a source of great pride to clean up the cemeteries.”

Once Alvin Jackson researches and locates an old cemetery, he seeks volunteers to clean up the area. If the cemetery is attached to a church, oftentimes, church members will volunteer. BUILD students from Georgia Southern University have helped with clean-up projects in the summer.     

“It’s a history lesson and a service,” said Gayle Jackson of the clean-up and tours.

Usually taking place on the third Saturday of the month, the tours are coordinated by Alvin Jackson and are open to the public. Set for the third Saturday in January, interested persons recently toured Brown Chapel Church cemetery.

Alvin Jackson described the finding of the obscure cemetery.

“My uncle, who was born in 1908 and is no longer living, talked about Brown Chapel cemetery, I asked around and no one seemed to know anything about it,” he said.  “When I listened to some of the tapes I have, others mentioned the area, including Mrs. Gertrude Lee Anderson Jones, who said she went to school at Brown Chapel and watched games at a baseball diamond there.”

It took Jackson quite a number of inquiries before finding someone who knew anything about the cemetery. Finally, he met a gentleman who said, “Yes, I know that cemetery. Two people who worked for my daddy are buried there.”

Deep in the woods a mile off Lakeview Road, Alvin Jackson found Brown Chapel Cemetery.

“It was all grown up, but we could see tombstones between huge cedar trees. If these cemeteries could talk … oh the stories they could tell,” he said.

Alvin Jackson said he was surprised to find one tombstone dated 1983, since no one seemed to know about the area.

“But the rest of the markers are dated in the 1870s. We plan to put a historical marker there to recognize the graves of folks of slave ancestry,” he added.

The community is invited to join WHHRC on a tour of A.C. Dunlap Memorial Cemetery, originally the Colored People Cemetery.

“This is the place where African-Americans were buried in Statesboro before integration,” said Alvin Jackson.

In June, the WHHRC will host the Juneteenth Celebration, with activities at the center on Friday, June 19 and more activities the next day at Statesboro locations.

Later in the fall, Sept. 5-6, WHHRC sponsors the Heritage Festival. Also, on Sept. 19, the Taste of Struggle slave cooking demonstration takes place.

“The demonstration is free,” said Gayle Jackson, “and a benefit dinner takes place later. We’ll also have all kinds of entertainment during the day, with people dressed in period clothes, cooking in a pit.”

The second annual Kwanzaa celebration takes place in December of this year.

In addition to all those exciting opportunities, the center has plans to develop a program to bring Bulloch County school children to Willow Hill for tours.

“We want to be able to tell and teach the stories to the new generation,” said Gayle Jackson.

For more information about the center or any of the programs, visit their website at www.willowhillheritage.org or call 912-800-1467. Send questions via e-mail to museum@willowhillheritage.org.