AN EX-SLAVE SOLDIER IN THE UNION ARMY is buried in an Athens, Georgia, African-American cemetery. A rather elaborate gravesite for Pvt. Charley Hicks exists in the beautiful but sadly rundown Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery in East Athens on Fourth Street. Charley Hicks joined a newly formed black regiment in May, 1865, before the Civil War was over. He received an honorable discharge as a private and got a pension following the war when he returned to Athens.
We estimate there are perhaps 3,500 graves in the cemetery founded in 1882 to give Athens area blacks a dignified and landscaped cemetery. About 600 or so graves have tombstones or markers. Approximately one-fifth of the marked graves are of ex-slaves. Prior to Gospel Pilgrim, burials for African Americans took place in small graveyards in more rural areas of Clarke County or in sub-standard portions of the old Athens City Cemetery and in Oconee Hill Cemetery.
Black citizens in the 19th Century knew that their graves might be violated and African-American graves covered over by new construction. Just this week I ran across a legal case in which a black citizen sued the City of Athens for digging a sewer line through the gravesite of her relative. That's why hundreds of African Americans welcomed the chance to bury family members in Gospel Pilgrim.
The dishonoring of black graves continued into the 20th Century. Some African-American graves in the old city cemetery were opened and bones found were hustled out one dark night and secretly buried en masse on Nowhere Road in Clarke County. The African-American graves were in a part of the old cemetery needed to build the University of Georgia’s Baldwin Hall adjacent to the burial ground. In Oconee Hill Cemetery, black graves were relegated to an unattractive area bordering a ravine. When a railroad embankment was constructed nearby, many of these graves were covered up.
THE GOSPEL PILGRIM SOCIETY WAS CHARTERED IN 1882, an African-American fraternal burial and insurance society. Members bought their lots at reasonable prices and paid a few cents per week to get a big funeral procession, led by lodge members in full regalia. The last president of the Gospel Pilgrim Society died in 1977. No one knows where his records went, although a woman who cared for him in his last illness had them in her attic. She can’t remember to whom she gave the records. This hampers lot identifications greatly. Since about 10 years ago I have helped with the restoration of the cemetery as chair of research and history for Gospel Pilgrim, a 9-acre cemetery at Fourth and Bray streets. The cemetery is inactive now, but very occasionally a burial is allowed if descendants can produce a lot ownership certificate and know where the lot is.
A few years ago City-county residents voted generously in a special sales tax election to make Gospel Pilgrim a $360,000 item to restore its roadways and improve its infra-structure. A re-dedication of the cemetery was held in 2010. It capped a decades-long effort to clear the jungle of privet, trees, and wisteria and tons of trash from the cemetery. About three-quarters of the cemetery was cleared and a program of grave identification using GPS and ground photography was carried out.
All care of the cemetery has now ground to a halt. The city-county has not set aside any maintenance funds, and with the current Recession, the cemetery is being allowed to return to the jungle. Athens-Clarke County doesn’t own the cemetery and only oversees it under a state law giving local governments permission to voluntarily take care of abandoned cemeteries. On Oct. 8, 2011, at 10 a.m. I’ll lead a walking tour of Gospel Pilgrim, calling special attention to Charlie Hick’s grave and to leading black educators buried in the cemetery. The walking tours are sponsored by the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation, and you can register online if you wish to participate. See http://achfonline.org/heritage-walks/. Price per ticket is $12 per ACHF member or $15 per non-member. The tour lasts about one hour.
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ALTHOUGH WE HAD THE BARE BONES OF INFORMATION about Charley Hicks being buried in Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery and knew where his grave was, it was not until his great- granddaughter, Patricia Wooten of North Carolina, visited the grave and told us about his time of soldiering for the Union. A look at his military service records in the National Archives in Washington D. C., and other data verified her information about Charley Hicks.
Hicks ran off from a plantation in Newton County, Georgia, and was mustered into the Union Army on May 1, 1865, at Macon as a private in the newly formed 138th Infantry Regiment, Colored Troops. Although Robert E. Lee had surrendered, various Confederate units kept fighting well into June, 1865. The Union Army was segregated. About 180,000 blacks joined the Union forces in units commanded by white officers. Hicks ended his brief service in January, 1866. Hicks's military records reveal he joined the Army when he was 18 or 19. The brief historic mentions of the 138th indicate its troops saw constabulary duty. Hicks said he remembered helping convey horses to Union troops in Augusta, Georgia, from Atlanta. The 138th was one of three new regiments founded in 1865. Hicks was discharged on Jan. 6, 1866. All three of the black regiments disbanded in January, 1866. Hicks received a pension for his services, and his widow also got a widow’s pension.
He was born a slave on the plantation of Harmon Hicks, about 11 miles southwest of Covington, Georgia. At some point he moved to Athens, marrying Mary Ann Shaw of Athens. They raised a family here, and one of the houses belonging to Charley Hicks is still standing, but boarded up, on West Hancock Avenue.
"A HEAP OF PERSONS CALLS ME CHARLES, but I claim my name is Charley,” he testified in his pension application. “Folks write my names Charley H. Hicks, but I don’t know what that first H is for. I have but the two names, Charley and Hicks.”
Charley Hicks was listed as a butler in the 1880 Clarke County, Georgia, federal census. There are indications he might have worked for the wealthy James Camak family in Athens. He died Dec. 8, 1916 and was buried in Gospel Pilgrim.
Patricia Wooten and her husband Chet would like very much to see an appropriate military marker placed on Charley Hicks’ grave. The present marker is toppled and damaged. If any blog readers have helpful ideas about this, they can write me in comments to the blog, and I’ll put them in contact with the Wootens.