Flat Rock African-American Museum & Archives 1st annual celebration honors ancestors

Submitted by Kelly Woodard (kelly@thesga.org)

Celebrants gathered at location of Flat Rock Historic Church. More photos are below the story; click on thumbnails to enlarge.

This past weekend I found myself attending the Flat Rock Archives Slave Cemetery Dedication and Libation Ceremony in Lithonia, Georgia. I awoke early, dressed in my jogging pants and headed to the Murphy Candler School Trailhead located along the PATH in the Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area, to participate in the 5K Benefit Walk supporting the Flat Rock community and archives. Besides the cool t-shirt I got for participating, I must admit that this was one of my favorite walks because it was away from bustle of everyday city life. We walked along the Flat Rock spur which is nested within the network of paved PATH trails (see photo below). Along the walk we witnessed constant deer crossing and bunnies hopping along the trail. Upon completing a 5k walk, I still had an entire day of activity.

Before the ceremony, people began congregating at the old Flat Rock Church site, built in 1823, now outlined in yellow caution tape. The recently crafted outline was the only physical evidence that was evident on the surface representing the historic church (see photo below). The church had been buried years ago, but today many congregated within the site that once held the church services of the Flat Rock ancestors and elders. In the middle of the makeshift outlined foundation, items saved from the former church severed as a momentum of heritage and pride which included the main alter, usher chairs, pew, and bell from the church steeple (see photo below).

 As I mingled within a congenial crowd listening to African drum beats, locals sharing stories recanting memories of days long gone, and Johnny Wait’s (Flat Rock Archive President) laugh serenading through the aggregation of people, I felt that I could not be in a better place at the current moment. I do not think anyone in the crowd knew exactly what to expect as this was the 1st Annual Commemorative Ancestors’ Walk and Community History Celebration, with the hope of many more to come. It was a great turn-out which included many important public, political, and religious leaders that stand behind what the Flat Rock archives and community represents in our society.

The celebration was serenaded by Leondra Hollinshed Cummings who sang the Negro Spiritual Ride on King Jesus which really caught the attention of the audience and many joined in to sing:

Ride on King Jesus
No man can-a-hinder me
Ride on King Jesus
Ride on
No man can-a-hinder me
No man can-a-hinder me
In that great getting up morning
Fair thee well, fair thee well
In that great getting up morning
Fair thee well, fair thee well
Ride on King Jesus…

Congressman Hank Johnson, representative of the 4th district of Georgia, spoke at the ceremony, stating that he has been behind Johnny Waits and the Flat Rock archives’ visions from the moment he heard them about eight or nine years ago when he and Johnny met while drinking iced tea in a bar. He stated that “Johnny is a person making a difference in the lives of many,” by making it a lifelong mission to preserve and protect the legacy of the Flat Rock African-American community. Congressman Johnson acknowledged that it is hard for African-Americans to see far into the past, especially when it is usually obscured through a distorted historical lens. He continued by stating that it is difficult for many to know what their forefathers’ foundation consisted of and as a result pioneers like the Flat Rock Archives allows opportunity to perceive a more realistic view of the past for African-American. Johnson then pressed that the Flat Rock Slave Cemetery is an essential landmark that must be preserved because it is a definitive link to the past, and then finished his speech by declaring that it must be protected and preserved for future generations to experience.

After the brief ceremony honoring the Flat Rock Church, community and ancestors, the crowd assembled to began a procession to walk from the old church site to the slave cemetery site. It was about a half mile walk and was one of amazement. Before I knew what was happening a celebration had begun which included students and band members of the Arabia Mountain High School Marching Band, decedents of the community, and people who believe in the mission of the Flat Rock community. Many were in costumes including The 54th Massachusetts Infantry-Company 1, slave women, and buffalo soldiers. As I was walking within the procession I noticed a man behind me playing a wooden flute while a little boy listened in amazement. Also, military style drumming by the marching band led the way along with African drumming scattered about, Buffalo Soldiers, Flat Rock community elders riding in antique cars, Civil War Calvary men historically dressed riding horseback, almost everyone carrying beautiful flowers to place on the graves, a boy walking his dog, and the protection of the DeKalb police force to ensure everyone’s safety in crossing the busy intersection of Browns Mill Road.

As the procession reached the Flat Rock Slave Cemetery, I realized that I had never seen so many people at once in the cemetery. I know that in days long gone a funeral would have looked much the same, but as a student working with Dr. Jeffrey Glover of Georgia State University on the Flat Rock Cemetery Mapping Project the faces that stood around were one of delight. As an archaeologist, we have to envision the past through material remains but now entering my mind was the past as a living entity.

The dedication and libation ceremony was one of amazement. Johnny, the president of the Flat Rock Archives, opened the celebration by thanking Cousin Vera Whitaker who took over the traditional responsibility of annually cleaning the cemetery after Rev. T.A. Byant, Sr. passed away in the 1980s. In order to preserve the cemetery the community got involved with the SGA’s local chapter Greater Atlanta Archaeological Society (GAAS) who cleaned the cemetery to its current state of beauty.

The crowd was awed by The Darien Shouters , all direct descendants of Georgia Geechee-Gullah ancestry, who performed in costume a traditional ‘shout-circle’ which has been passed down through generations by means of oral tradition. They performed in Mende-language from Sierra Leone-and it was noted that this was the first time the piece was performed in this language in the geographical area. As one of the men knelt in the cemetery another placed authentic slave chains around his neck, instantaneously many in the audience gasp and tears filled their eyes. Everyone felt the heartache of the past as the ‘ring circle’ began and the man in chains bowed until the shout was finished.

Next, Apostle Leon Hollinshed and his wife Margaret led the libation by telling everyone that the ancestors were with us because at the celebration about eight hawks circled overhead and then flew north toward the cemetery. According to Hollinshed, this is a good omen and one that lets us know that the ancestors are with us. I do not know if it was the smell of the incense, but as the libation ceremony began, I looked around the crowd and began to see the ancestors among us as the background noise faded away. This was an amazing experience and I soon realized that I really was seeing the ancestors in the faces of the descendants. The community, both past and present, cared very much for their community legacy to continue to be passed on through generations present and for generations in the future. In African-American culture, it is essential to continually care for land in which the dead reside because if not it is believed that they are forgotten.

After the libation, Dr. Jeffrey Glover of GSU’s Anthropology Department explained their involvement with the cemetery since 2008. Dr. Glover, his students and I are working hard to accurately map the graves along with surface artifacts and plants to provide the Flat Rock Archives with an interactive online map that will allow people to view the cemetery on their computers and explore who is in the cemetery along with any historical information about the individuals. This link shows the map in its early stages. Currently it is possible to use the search tool (binoculars) to click on mapped graves within the cemetery.

Subsequently the celebration continued for the duration of the day at the Flat Rock Archives, also known as the Bryant plantation which is one of the oldest standing buildings in DeKalb County. Vendors were selling antiques, baked goods, jellies, and barbeque; and visitors were eager to learn about Flat Rock’s heritage and traditions.

The Flat Rock celebration was that of learning, inspiration, and one that I will be attending next year. Every event I have attended at Flat Rock in Lithonia, Georgia has been one of bewilderment and amazement and I encourage my fellow archaeologists and those interested in the field to become part of their upcoming events.

Kelly Woodard is the SGA’s new website editor. The Flat Rock event happened on October 30, 2010. Click here to read an earlier story on this website about the Flat Rock Church.

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