A Three Year Dream
By Zach Friis
It has been close to 135 years since the Civil War took place and even more years have past since the first slaves were traded on the beaches of this state. Through out the centuries thousands of black men and women have died, either serving their masters or their country, and their deaths have gone largely unnoticed by the general population. Their resting-places became parking lots, while their stories lapsed from the consciousness of society. If not for the visions of a few, the memories of thousands would be lost.
In 1956, a laborer named Melvin Nelson discovered another cemetery within the Sunset Hill Cemetery in Valdosta Georgia. It turned out that the other cemetery was a slave cemetery. Mr. Nelson had been told to make a compost heap over the area. While he was working one day a white lady came and asked what he was doing. He replied, "destroying the past" (Gambil). The woman was Belle Hunt Finely. She told Nelson not to make the compost heap there, but rather mark the site.
Decades later Rev. W. F. Wade discovered that slaves were not the only ones hidden in the cemetery. Black Union soldiers of the 103rd Colored Infantry are buried there as well. Rev. Wade had heard stories from his grandfather about black soldiers in Valdosta, but he did not know that his grandfather was talking about the Reconstruction era. After years of research, Rev. Wade finally found evidence that Valdosta had been occupied by colored troops after the Civil War ended. Rev. Wade was actually able to trace part of his genealogy to one of the soldiers. Several of those soldiers were buried at Sunset Hill, but their gravesides were shown no reverence. In fact, a small part of the Oak Street parking lot at Valdosta State University is paved over their graves.
Rev. Wade's Vision was to honor those who died. He and special committees at Project Change in Valdosta spent several years collecting private donations to build a memorial. On the 6th of November of 1995, his vision came true. At the recognition ceremony, several powerful people showed up. Congressman Sanford Bishop spoke, as did Mayor Jimmy Rainwater. According to Rev. Wade, there is not another monument in the US like it. The committee that organized the creation is actually trying to register it with the National Registry as a historical monument. Without tangible reminders of antiquity such as this one, we tend to forget the mistakes of the past.
Wade, Rev. Willy F. Personal Interview. 17 April 2000.
Gambil, Rex. "Slaves Honored Sunday." Valdosta Daily Times 91.134 26 Feb. 1996: A1+.
Tanner, Mike. "Preparing the Monument." Valdosta Daily Times 7 November 1995: A1.
Morman, Frank. Introduction to Valdosta Project Change. 1 March 2000.