One of the most historic cemeteries in Savannah is Laurel Grove Cemetery. Divided in two parts, this is one 'must see' location for history buffs visiting Savannah
A few miles from Savannah, Georgia’s Historic District stands the untapped Laurel Grove Cemetery. Named after the plethora of laurel oak trees that once covered the area, the historic graveyard stands out with its unique, old-fashioned charm.
Although not as famous as Bonaventure Cemetery, Laurel Grove’s beautiful greenery, and peaceful atmosphere have made it a central attraction in Savannah.
This 19th-century cemetery is a visitor-friendly, park-like burial site where history, culture, and architecture coexist in undisturbed harmony.
Planning for the Laurel Grove Cemetery commenced in 1818. Development, however, was not initiated until 1850, after the other cemeteries in the city were approaching full capacity.
The land in which the cemetery stands was once a rice field owned by the Springfield Plantation. The rice industry had been thriving in Savannah since the mid-18th century as the marshy area provided the ideal conditions for cultivating the grain.
Nevertheless, as 19th-century superstitions festered, the large number of rice fields began to concern the population. It was believed that the stagnant water of the fields would pollute the air - this idea often referred to as the miasma theory - affecting the nearby residents and causing illness.
Graves were also believed to emit miasmas. To keep the community healthy, the new burial grounds were constructed far from the city center. Locals believed they could preserve the well-being of the community by paving over rice fields and moving cemeteries further away from city limits.
The deadly fumes were believed to only affect people that lived near the cemetery. Recreational visits were not considered harmful and were commonplace at the time. With this purpose in mind, the 67-acre graveyard was designed to include multiple pathways and lush landscaping that would encourage picnics and gatherings.
Although Laurel Grove was meant to be the main burial site for Savannah’s deceased, some wealthy residents preferred to be buried in the expensive Bonaventure Cemetery.
Nevertheless, Laurel Grove Cemetery houses some of the most prominent families in the city, as well as important soldiers, artists, and politicians.
In line with the southern practices of the time, shortly after the cemetery opened in 1853, the area was racially segregated. The north of the cemetery was allocated to whites - this side is now referred to as Laurel Grove North, while Laurel Grove South was allocated to African Americans.
By 1907, all of the available grave lots in the north had been filled. As a result, the city purchased the large Bonaventure Cemetery to supplement its burial grounds. Laurel Grove South took much longer to reach capacity and lots were available throughout the late 20th century.
To this day, the Department of Cemeteries uses the Keeper’s House, Porter’s Lodge, Gazebo, and holding vaults that were constructed when the cemetery first opened in 1853.
By the 1930s, the cemetery had gravely deteriorated, with time and weather taking a toll on its structures. The historical significance of the site began to be acknowledged during this decade and major preservation movements started to take place.
In 1958, the state spent 3,000 dollars to clean and reconstruct the graveyard, while the Savannah Sugar Refinery commissioned the installation of wrought iron gates around its boundaries.
Since its inception, Laurel Grove Cemetery was racially segregated; split between the north and the south. The larger, northern portion was allocated to whites, while the southern portion (4 acres in total) was designated for African-Americans.
All of the available burial lots in the Laurel Grove North Cemetery were purchased during the mid-1800s. With such a large number of 19th-century monuments, it is no surprise this is considered one of the most authentically-Victorian cemeteries in the South.
Laurel Grove was designed to include lush greenery and an inviting layout. The city also made sure to construct plenty of pathways as the people of the time enjoyed frolicking in the cemetery.
Laurel Grove North Cemetery is the final resting place of people from all walks of life; from soldiers to musicians. The cemetery’s architecture is also diverse, ranging from grand marble monuments to simple headstones.
Known for being one of the wealthiest men in Savannah, cotton merchant Charles Green showcased his riches by building the most expensive house the city had ever seen - the Green-Meldrim House.
The extravagant home cost 93,000 dollars - an astonishing amount at the time - and served as Union Headquarters for a period of time during the Civil War. The kindness Charles Green showed the Union army was likely what saved Savannah from being reduced to ashes. His home, the Green-Meldrim House is currently open to the public for tours.
In 1911, after being inspired by the founding of the Boy Scouts, Juliette Gordon Low formed a small, all-girls troop in England. A year later she traveled to Savannah where she established the Girl Scouts of the USA and became its first leader. Juliette Gordon Low’s home, the Andrew Low House, is currently open to the public for tours.
Florence Martus, also known as “the waving girl”, is famous for greeting the ships that entered Savannah’s seaport. From 1887 to 1931, roughly 44 years, Martus waved at passing ships with a handkerchief or a lantern - depending on what time of day it was. Today, you can find a statue dedicated to her on River Street, in Savannah's historic district.
James Lord Pierpont was a New England-born writer, musician, and Confederate soldier. He is best known for composing the famous Christmas tune “Jingle Bells”. Prior to composing the world-famous song in 1857, Pierpont was the music director for the Unitarian Church in Savannah, located on Oglethorpe Square.
The “Silence” memorial was erected in Forsyth Park by the Ladies Memorial Association of Savannah in 1875.
The solid-marble sculpture depicts a woman enveloped in white robes with her right index finger in front of her lips. Her left hand is holding a downward-facing torch.
In 1878, it was moved to the Confederate portion of the Laurel Grove North Cemetery to commemorate the soldiers who died in the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Even though it was dedicated to a specific battle, Confederate soldiers who perished in numerous battles can be found laid to rest here.
Laurel Grove Cemetery South was opened in 1853 on a portion of land that was formerly owned by the Springfield Plantation. At the time, the new cemetery was racially segregated, designating only 4 acres for black burials.
The new cemetery was constructed as a response to the overfilled graveyards of the city. Before the construction of the Laurel Grove Cemetery, most of Savannah’s African-American population was buried in the Old Negro Cemetery.
Many of the remains held here were moved to Laurel Grove South upon its completion. The old burial grounds were subsequently paved over and transformed into Whitefield Square.
The Old Negro Cemetery followed African traditions with the deceased often being buried with symbolic items. Objects they favored or used frequently during their lifetime were sometimes placed over their graves.
Laurel Grove South, on the other hand, was designed to mirror European customs. Traditional African burials, therefore, became increasingly rare as the new cemetery did not encourage such practices.
Although grave markers were commonly made of stone, the poor and the enslaved received wooden markers to designate the final resting place. Naturally, this material affected their longevity, explaining why many are currently buried in unmarked graves.
As the years progressed, however, stone markers became more common in the south portion of the cemetery. Its size also increased gradually, from 4 acres to 90 acres, making it almost as large as its counterpart.
South Carolina-born slave Andrew Bryan moved to Savannah with his brother Sampson. Influenced by the preachings of George Liele - founder of the First African Baptist Church - Andrew Bryan joined the small congregation and became one of its most significant leaders.
Bryan became a successful preacher and attracted slaves to Yamacraw, where he held his services. His sermons were often interrupted as white slave masters suspected he was planning a rebellion. The slaves that attended his church were brutally beaten and whipped. Bryan himself endured severe punishments and setbacks for his faith yet he always persevered.
Andrew Cox Marshall is known for being one of Savannah’s most important pre-Civil War African-American figures. Born into slavery, Marshall managed to acquire his freedom. He later became a successful businessman and minister, overcoming the limitations imposed upon him for being freed before slavery was abolished.
Henry Cunningham is best known for leading the Second African Baptist Church and for being one of the wealthiest black men in Savannah. Cunningham was a savvy businessman whose successful ventures allowed him to purchase several properties and slaves. Riches aside, he was a valued member of the church and led the congregation for roughly four decades.
Jane DeVeaux was the daughter of a former slave and a free woman from Antigua. John Deveaux, her father, was the leader of the First African Baptist Church where Jane and her mother would secretly teach African-American children to read.
Before the Civil War, teaching slaves was illegal as whites feared that educated slaves could potentially rebel against them. Schools educating slaves were usually discovered and shut down.
Additionally, anyone who dared to teach a slave was subjected to brutal, public punishments. Jane Deveaux managed to keep her clandestine school going for 30 years by strategically hiding her books and registering herself as a pastry cook (instead of an educator).
W. W. Law was a leader in the Civil Rights movement, responsible for the desegregation of schools in Savannah. An educated leader, Law believed in the power of nonviolent resistance against racism. From 1950 to 1976, Law petitioned - and achieved - significant changes within the southern school system. He promoted the study of African-American history, forever changing the course of education in the South.
The Laurel Grove Cemetery is open seven days a week from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Separate entrances have been established for both sides of the cemetery. Admission is free and leashed pets are welcome in the open areas.
Laurel Grove North Cemetery
802 W. Anderson Street
Savannah, GA 31415
Laurel Grove South Cemetery
2101 Kollock Street
Savannah, GA 31415