Sometime back, Laura and I were driving down White Horse Road and it struck us just how many unkept cemeteries there were. I made a mental note to check on these, and subsequently several were added to my list of orphaned graveyards.
One that struck me as particularly forlorn was located right next to an on-ramp for I-85.
I was able to find the cemetery on Find-a-Grave which identified it as the cemetery for Bakers Chapel AME Church.
I’ve been familiar with the name Bakers Chapel for a long time. A colleague was principal of Bakers Chapel Elementary School and invited me to do some technology workshops for her teachers. Apart from the school’s name, I really knew nothing about the history of the school or the origin of the name.
Before I did some digging I wanted to check out the cemetery in person. I visited the cemetery back in November of 2019, when I had dropped by many of these abandoned graveyards. I had to park next door in the parking lot of a trucking company and walk to the cemetery.
The fence surrounding the cemetery had been severely damaged, as if it had been hit by a vehicle.
The cemetery wasn’t overgrown, so someone was maintaining it. There was trash along the fence next to the road, but that seemed to be sadly typical. A concrete barrier or walkway marked the edges of the cemetery.
There were few standing headstones, and even fewer that were legible. I didn’t get many photos of the individual stones, so from here on out I’ll have to rely on the photos posted to Find-a-Grave.
A sign identifying the cemetery had been knocked over with the fence. I found it on the ground overgrown with grass. Find-a-Grave had an image of the sign intact.
I couldn’t find much on the early history of the church. As with so many African American Churches during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, it was largely ignored by local news. I was able to find a document entitled Centennial Encyclopedia of African Methodist Episcopal Church by Richard Wright, published in 1916. In that work it states that Bakers Chapel was started by Rev. Thomas C. Devlin sometime after 1877.
Devlin founded several other churches in the area before moving to Illinois around 1900. I haven’t been able to find out who the “Baker” was for whom the chapel was named. Bakers Chapel shows up on the Kyser 1882 map of Greenville townships, but the name doesn’t appear anywhere else on the map.
Another source, which I’ll reference in depth later, mentioned that the church was founded by a “former slave.” It would be my guess that “Baker” was some white landowner rather than that former slave. The AME history didn’t mention whether or not Devlin was a former slave.
Once again I came upon the same problem with early African American churches. The only early news I found was the occasional obituary, but even those had a racist twist. If they were mentioned at all, it was as a “respected Negro,” as if that were out of the ordinary.
Later obituaries from the 1970s through 90s were much more reasonable, but these early ones sound strange to modern ears.
At some point the church sponsored a school for the African American community. I couldn’t find much in the news about the school until the 1950s. Most of the articles I did find from that time period were about clinics held at the school to promote one health initiate or another for “colored students.”
One article from 1954 about school overcrowding says that, “A building is being planned to replace the Baker’s Chapel School which burned. Those students were sent to Nicholtown temporarily.” I was then able to find the article about the school burning in 1953.
The school that replaced the one that was burned was completed in 1958. It was built under the “Equalization Schools” plan for South Carolina. This plan was to provide “separate but equal” facilities for black and white students.
As for the church, it really only comes back into the picture in the 1990s. The church’s congregation was declining and the building had fallen into disrepair. With only three members of the congregation remaining, the local A. M. E. organization decided to close and abandon the church.
I had mentioned earlier that articles stated that the church was “founded by slaves.” Minnie Harris, pictured above, stated that her grandmother helped found the church. She was a slave at the time. That does explain the later statements, though Devlin could have been enslaved at some point given the date of his birth.
The remaining members refused to leave and declared that they were now Bakers Chapel Independent Baptist Church. The AME denomination said that the members were now trespassing.
Through the tenacity of the remaining members, the church was able to add another dozen members to their roll and raise nearly $50,000 for repairs to the building.
Eventually the AME church came to a compromise with the breakaway church, allowing them to continue worshipping in the building.
After the dispute between the AME Church and the congregation I can find no more reference to the church. Nothing. I can’t even find where the church building had been. Any address I could find places it right where the school was.
Knowing that GNIS data can sometimes be inaccurate I checked the Greenville County Property map for ownership of plots surrounding the school, but ownership history doesn’t reveal the AME Church nor the congregation. The church cemetery DOES appear on the current county map, with ownership listed as “Bakers Chapel Colored Cemetary [sic]”.
I even checked USGS topographic maps going back to 1935. The 1935 map shows that the school was located behind the church. That makes sense, as the church probably started the school, and the school was mostly likely just a couple of rooms. Only the school is labeled, though.
Later maps show the new school and the present location of the cemetery, but not the church. This is the 1957 Greenville Quad. I-85 had not yet been built. The cemetery is in the upper right of this map.
The latest map available online is from 1983, and it has a similar view, with the addition of I-85.
The church cemetery does appear in the news one more time, though. A plan to move graves to widen the Interstate drew heated criticism at about the same time as the dispute over ownership of the church was happening.
Once again, a compromise was reached and the graves did not have to be relocated. The cemetery remains at its present location.
Sadly, even the school has now faded into memory. In 2007 Bakers Chapel was consolidated with Greenview Elementary to create the new Thomas Kern Elementary School. In 2010 the school property was sold. All that is officially left of the Bakers Chapel name is the cemetery.
The places commemorated by the name are no longer there, but that doesn’t mean that the name should be forgotten, nor the lives commemorated by the markers in the Bakers Chapel Cemetery. 114 of the nearly 130 interments in the cemetery have been documented on Find-a-Grave. At least nine of those were born prior to the Civil War, meaning that they most likely were born into slavery. The latest burial listed on the site was John Thomas Harris in 1990.
Then there are the individual stories. Genealogist Penny Forrester has said that in Bakers Chapel Cemetery she, “found the grave of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s grandfather, who was buried beside his twin brother. Both were ministers.” This would the Rev. Jacob Robinson and the Rev. Jesse Robinson, for whom Jackson is named.
Many of the graves are unmarked and some marked with simple field stones. Some of the headstones, even those around the turn of the 20th Century, are fairly elaborate and carved, indicating a certain amount of wealth for the family.
One hand-carved stone intrigued me. It bears the name Rev. Samuel R. Rosemond, whose obituary in the Greenville News appears earlier in this post (“Respected Negro Dies”). The stone also bears the name of Samuel R. Abercrombie. At first I was confused by the similarity of the names, but Rosemond lived from 1854 to 1943 and Abercrombie lived from 1899 to 1920. I’ve not been able to find any relationship between the two or why their names should appear together on one stone.
One of the more intriguing, complex. yet tragic stories to arise from Bakers Chapel is that of Lemuel Davis, Sr and his family. His was the only listing that also included a photograph.
His general appearance in this photo is that of a white man, and I wondered what his connection was to an African American cemetery. The listing had links to his parents. His father, Richard Harrison Jacobs, was most certainly Caucasian.
His mother, Hettie E. Davis, appears to have more African American features in this photo.
The relationship between Jacobs and Davis seems complex, and certainly affected by social attitudes toward races of that time. There are no records of a marriage between the two and the Find-a-Grave data does not show them as husband and wife.
Jacobs lived from 1829 until 1911. All of the census records I could find for him list him as “single.” He served as a private in the 16th Regiment, South Carolina Infantry (Greenville Regiment) of the Confederacy. Jacobs was a slaveholder. The 1850 census Slave Schedule shows that he owned two male slaves, aged 13 and 16.
Ten years later he owned one female slave, age either 30 or 50. I couldn’t quite tell from the handwriting, but to me it looks more like 30. At first I wondered if this unnamed slave might be Hettie Davis, but the ages don’t quite match.
Speaking of Hettie Davis, her name doesn’t appear in the census records until the early 1900s, where she is listed as the head of the household and as “Mulatto.”
I won’t speculate on the nature of the relationship, but together Jacobs and Davis had four children, who all took the surname of their mother. The children were all born after the Civil War. Davis was 40 when her first child was born and 47 when the last was born, which was very old to be bearing children.
To further complicate matters, it looks like Hettie Davis and her two daughters were initially buried in the Davis-Jacobs Family Cemetery on the grounds of Southside High School. They were later removed from the white family cemetery of their father and partner and re-interred at Resthaven Memorial Gardens on the Piedmont Highway.
Back to Lemuel Davis, it seems he had a long-standing dispute with his brother, Richard Davis, over money owed. In 1919 Richard shot and killed his brother, Lemuel, over the debt. Despite the complex mixed heritage of the brothers, the headline in the Greenville News refers to them as “Negroes.”
Lemuel Davis’s family thrived, despite the tragedy. His grandson, Curtis “Giggie” Thomas, went on to become a successful businessman in Greenville with Giggie’s Bail Bonds.
Bakers Chapel AME Cemetery is definitely orphaned. The church for which it is named is long gone. I wouldn’t classify it as completely abandoned, though. The cemetery is maintained and mowed with signs indicating the name, unlike Fellowship Methodist which is completely overgrown and forgotten.
Though orphaned, the names tell stories of tragedy and triumph, which is one of the reasons why I find this research so appealing.