July 27, 2008

Historic Burial Ground Gets Cleanup

By Tim Donnelly, The Island Packet, Hilton Head Island, S.C.

Jul. 27--HARDEEVILLE --At 120, Geneva Simmons must have kept herself in pretty good condition until her death in 1925.

Her burial site at Purrysburg Cemetery, however, wasn't so lucky.

A few years of neglect caused the landscape around the 250 graves of slave descendants to turn into a forest of wild weeds, fallen leaves, brittle old wreaths and rusty flower stands. It's not the kind of resting place members of the Fisher Chapel United Methodist Church wanted for their generations of family members.

Barbara Williams Ellis noticed the condition of the cemetery recently when visiting her cousins' gravesites.

"This is a totally different look here," Ellis said Saturday, holding a rake in her blue-and-white gardening gloves while sweat dripped down her face. "I realized something needed to be done."

The person responsible for the upkeep became sick and let the condition slip over the years, she said. So Ellis and her friend J. Winifred Badger rallied other churchgoers last month to start taking the cemetery care into their own hands. About 70 people showed up last month, and a handful of volunteers showed up to help out Saturday. But the church wants to make this a regular exercise for every month in the summer and every few months in the winter.

The cemetery is at the corner of Church and Purrysburg roads in Hardeeville, near an area where slaves were housed hundreds of years ago, said Ellis, who is working on a book about the black history of Hardeeville.

On Saturday, men with weed trimmers and teenagers with rakes joined in the cleanup. The cemetery still is used as a burial ground, but Geneva Simmons, the cemetery's oldest resident, had to endure the years of overgrowth and neglect.

"If you could have seen it before, you would've said, 'Wow, you guys have come a long way,' " Ellis said.


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