African American Funeral Programs, The Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center, Bulloch County, Georgia database is a collaborative project between The Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center, Georgia Southern University Department of History, and the Zach S. Henderson Library. The documents presented in this online archive are from the private and active collection of Alvin D. Jackson, Chairman of the Board of Trustees for The Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center. Over the past 35 years, Dr. Alvin Jackson has collected African American funeral programs from funeral homes, mortuaries and private citizens of the community and many from the area, who left as part of the great migration of African American from 1920 – 1970, and travelled to various parts of the United States looking for new opportunities.
Obituaries, funeral programs, and death certificates relay more than a notice of a person’s passing. They include valuable information that may be difficult to find otherwise, such as where the individual worked, where they attended church, what organizations they were a part of, their education, and names of family members. These brief, personal histories help family and friends learn details of the life of the deceased. Examining a large collection of obituaries can also provide information about large trends within a community and insight into a particular time period, making them important not only to genealogical research, but to local history as well. Obituaries are reflections of the time period in which they were written. The obituaries of African Americans were not typically published in local newspapers until the 1960s, coinciding with the nationwide effort to desegregate. Before then, family members handwrote the deceased’s history, keeping their life stories and accomplishments known only to loved ones. When blacks and whites began to integrate, however, articles pertaining to African Americans, such as coverage of sporting events, school activates, and even obituaries were included in local newspapers and communicated to the wider public, spreading their personal histories to larger audiences. The documents presented in this online collection contribute to the public’s understanding of local African American history by offering a glimpse into popular hymns, Bible passages, and the rhetoric of the community.
The documents included in this database are mainly in the form of funeral programs of African Americans who lived in or had ties to Bulloch County, Portal, Statesboro, or surrounding areas. Some contain very basic information, providing only the deceased name, date of birth, and place of internment, while others offer rich detail into a person’s life and include photographs. The Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center hopes this collection will provide not only a personal history of the individuals, but also a collective history of African Americans in and from Bulloch and surrounding counties.
The Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center is a community organization devoted to the preservation of The Willow Hill School and local African American history in Bulloch County, Georgia and surrounding counties. The Willow Hill School was founded in 1874 and was later converted into an equalization school by the mid-twentieth century. Although the local board of education intended to provide the illusion that black and white schools were on an equal footing, in most instances, African American institutions were significantly inferior. Texts books were outdated, school buildings were dilapidated, and teachers were underpaid. Willow Hill School went through many changes throughout the late 1900s, and it was permanently closed in 1999. In 2005, the school went up for sale, and the descendants of the school founders, former teachers and students band together to buy the building. Soon thereafter, the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center was formed. The organization hosts many community events including a fall festival, tours of the museum, workshops, sermons, and worship services.
To learn more about this organization, please visit their website.
Dr. Alvin Jackson has also conducted numerous oral history interviews with members of the community about their lives and times at Willow Hill School and having lived in Bulloch and surrounding counties.
A sample of those interviews can be accessed here.
Sarah Napier is a 2017 graduate of the Master of Arts in History program at Georgia Southern University. As part of her non-thesis project, Sarah worked with the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center and the Digital Commons team at the Zach S. Henderson Library to create this database. Throughout the fall of 2016 and spring of 2017, she hosted several scanning events where undergraduate students aided in the digitization of over a thousand funeral programs of African Americans from Bulloch County and surrounding areas. She hopes this database is useful not only to genealogical researchers, but to students and scholars as well.