This three-part story involves me yelling at a pastor, nearly freezing my hinder off and finding snakes on a grave (not on a plane).
It’s also a tale of two cemeteries located within a mile of each other. They share a common past but their current state is drastically different.
My goal was to find the grave of Sarah Hackett Bell. Sounds simple, right? That’s what was going through my mind as I headed toward Johns Creek on a frigid December morning. I’d never been in that neck of the woods before but the map on the FiAG page for Rogers-Bell Cemetery (which noted that it was also known as Rogers Cemetery) seemed simple enough.
Driving through the area, I noted that this was what being “out in the country” meant, albeit pretty wealthy country. The only picture I had of the cemetery was of the plaque outside of it. The winding road gave me no clues as I checked my iPhone map yet again. Wait, did I pass it?
Frustrated, I pulled over into the parking lot of a large Methodist church. The locals would know, right? A young man came out, heading across to what looked like the office. I heard myself yelling out the car window, “Hey!” and felt my cheeks go red. Not my usual style to shout at the clergy, but it worked. Turns out he was the new pastor and not familiar with the area yet. But someone in the office knew. Just back down the road, but not very big and easy to miss.
I finally found it. Two short, rough wooden posts with a cord between them blocked off the path so you couldn’t drive up into it. So I parked as best I could on the side of the much traveled road and headed up the hill. This was NOT what I expected.
What I found was a collection of markers randomly scattered about, none of them with the last name Bell. Most were Rogers. Old silk flower arrangements dotted some of them. A few were too worn to read. This couldn’t be right.
Shivering under a sunless sky in this strange clearing, I was poorly dressed for this wild goose chase in my thin jacket. I’d forgotten my scarf and gloves. With numb fingers, I called the Gwinnett Historical Society for help. Yes, you’re in the right place, they said. That’s it.
But it wasn’t. I had to ask myself what on earth had I gotten myself into. Fed up and nearly frozen, I climbed into my car, cranked up the heat and took off. On the way home, I found a Mellow Mushroom where I could thaw out and have a late lunch.
Once home, I started looking for answers. The only thing I could find on the Internet was a middle school teacher’s Web site showing how his students were studying the lives of some of the people buried in Rogers-Bell as part of their history curriculum. The pictures looked nothing like what I had seen that day. THIS Rogers-Bell was what I’d envisioned. Handsome iron gates, orderly graves, tall old trees. That’s when it hit me.
There were TWO cemeteries. I’d clearly been in Rogers Cemetery, not Rogers-Bell. This is a lesson to any new FiAG photo volunteer. Always check to see if there’s possibly a duplicate listing or potential misinformation. Those words “also known as Rogers Cemetery” were wrong.
I contacted Wesley, the person who created that original page for Rogers-Bell. I learned that he had written the “also known as Rogers Cemetery” by mistake and has been unable to fix it. Yes, he had documented the graves as part of his work with the Gwinnett Historical Society but had not taken photos at the time. He urged me to do so and to create a new Rogers-Bell page with a good bio, proper map and photos.
I also contacted that middle school teacher, Mr. Roberts. I discovered that the REAL Rogers-Bell was about a mile from Rogers Cemetery. It sits in a subdivision amid huge McMansions on a wooded acre. Turns out that Rogers-Bell contains the grave of John Rogers, who built and managed a plantation on the property with his half-Cherokee wife and children in the 1800s. More on John Rogers in Part Two next week.
So how is Rogers Cemetery connected? According to “Georgia Deaths: 1818-1989”, it is listed as “Rogers Cemetery (Black and Indians) NW side Bell (Boles) Rd., off McGinnis Ferry Rd., Fulton County.” It was created for the former slaves (and their descendants) that worked on John Rogers’ plantation. That explained the haphazard grave placement and its somewhat forlorn state. One was a white cemetery and one was a black cemetery. It was rich man vs. free but poor man.
Now I had to go back and find Rogers-Bell, take photos of all the graves. That included the one of the impetus for my quest, Sarah Hackett Bell. But this time, I was getting out the long johns, and my warmest scarf and gloves. Cemetery hopping is fun but not when your fingers are frozen.
You can read about that adventure next week in Part Two.