Snow Hill Cemetery is located in the city of Apalachicola, and like all cemeteries it is a sacred place. A place where as you walk you should pray and be aware that you might be walking upon an unmarked grown-over grave. It is naturally quiet and peaceful, yet alive with the collective spiritual presence of its inhabitants.
It is the place where my maternal grandparents were laid to rest along with aunts, uncles and cousins who had their beginnings in this little town.
On my childhood visits to Apalachicola my mother would always bring me to the cemetery to show me where her parents were buried and to sweep off their graves and bring brand-new silk flowers. Then she would pray and she would talk to them. This was primarily how I learned to have reverence for the dead and their resting places where they reposed free of the labors of the aboveground world.
Snow Hill is unique in that it was specifically started for the African American citizens of Apalachicola who were then referred to as “Colored.” Before then Black people were mostly buried in the southwest quarter of the old Magnolia Cemetery reserved for them and in the subdivision of Tilton where a great many of them lived. There were even some prominent Black citizens buried in the city’s oldest cemetery, Chestnut, which is located on Highway 98. Nevertheless, Snow Hill remains the only officially segregated cemetery.
On my regular visits to the cemetery as an adult I began to wonder about the history of the place. This interest grew when I came across a poster size document on display in one of the local offices titled “Snow Hill Cemetery… Colored… Apalachicola, Fla.” The left side of the document featured a map of the plots that bordered the west side of Bluff Road. The right side was a copy of the official filing of the property with the city under then Mayor James Percy Coombs on March 12, 1929.
According to the document the land described was acquired from Mr. Joseph Messina and Mrs. Elizabeth Messina to the City of Apalachicola dated Oct. 15, 1928. The original deed was for a 15-acre tract of land. Three of those acres became Snow Hill Cemetery and the other acres eventually became a sports complex. Joseph Messina was a prominent businessman in the seafood industry and operated the Bay City Packing Company in Apalachicola. It is interesting to note that according to records in City Hall, Mr. Messina himself purchased at least three blocks of land in the cemetery designated for colored residents.
What fascinated me even more about the history of Snow Hill Cemetery was the discovery of information about the Snow Hill African Methodist Episcopal Church for which the cemetery was named. According to a single page of surviving minutes from the church files, the church was constituted in 1906 and the original services were held at “the Bluff” approximately six miles north of Apalachicola.
The “Bluff” being referred to is an area at the furthermost north end of Bluff Road known then as “Old Woman’s Bluff” and known now as the Abercrombie Boat Ramp. This early AME church probably serviced some of the Black residents of Tilton and the families of those men working in the many sawmills that existed along the Apalachicola River at that time.
In 1912 the church moved to its last known location in Apalachicola on 12th Street to a small white cabin. A later structure added in 1918 adjoined the existing structure and contained a bell and belfry. This church was located in the area known as Cottage Hill. I was able to talk to some residents who remember Snow Hill Church. One of these sources, Mrs. Carolyn Joseph McBride, remembers attending services there as a child with her grandmother, Mrs. Elizabeth Simmons.
“It was a simple white church with a steeple on the front of the building. You went through a foyer to get inside. I can even remember the smell of the church. …The road outside was very sandy. We called that area Sugar Hill.”
So, you see Snow Hill Cemetery had a history connected to Snow Hill Church that predated its establishment in March 1929 and it is all but certain that many of the early funeral services took place at that church on 12th Street. Now, nine decades later, people like me still go to Snow Hill to visit the gravesites of their loved ones.
It is not definitively clear why the segregated cemetery was started in the first place. Perhaps there was no more room at Old Magnolia or Tilton. Perhaps it was simply a sign of the times of segregation. But if you ask people who have a loved one buried there, it really doesn’t matter. In fact, there is even a sense of pride in the shared ancestry of the place: five generations and counting.
In recent history, perhaps since the late 20th century. African Americans are welcome to lay to rest their loved ones in plots purchased in cemeteries such as the “New” Magnolia. Many families however still hold internment services at Snow Hill. I personally know of two services that occurred in the late summer of 2020.
So yes, my mother, who is now an ancestor, taught me well. In between the visits with those elders of her childhood who were still living, and the visits to the graves of those who had gone on to glory, she taught me how important it is to respect those who have gone before you; those on whose shoulders you stand. This is a lesson I have never forgotten and one that I try to honor each time I come home to Apalachicola. I still bring flowers to my grandparent’s graves, and I still pray where I walk.
Ask the former generation and find out what their ancestors learned, for we were born only yesterday and know nothing, and our days on earth are but a shadow. Job 8: 8 -9… NIV
Marcya Joseph is an artist and retired teacher who spends a great deal of time in Apalachicola.
This article originally appeared on The Apalachicola Times: Snow Hill Cemetery: Pray where you walk