Waycross, Georgia

Documenting Red Hill Cemetery


UNF Journal, Winter 2019


Dr. Sheffler participates in Total Station Mapping at Red Hill Cemetery


Faculty members and students at the University of North Florida — in all disciplines — are conducting research to find answers and discover useful knowledge. One project involves researchers from history, anthropology, archaeology and English — all working together to unravel the details of a real-life unsolved mystery.

Located on a small ridge of red clay in Waycross, Georgia, is a five-acre piece of history called the Red Hill Cemetery. With graves obscured by underbrush and headstones destroyed by vandalism, the cemetery is the keeper of a real modern-day mystery: Who is buried there?

What is known is that the cemetery was used from the early 1800s to the 1960s by area African-American churches. Now researchers are working to locate the graves and determine the identities of the dead without excavation to preserve the sanctity of the site.

Dr. David Sheffler, associate professor of history, who is heading the research, said the project began with a phone call from the director of the Okefenokee Heritage Center in Waycross, who was looking to partner with an academic institution to help document the cemetery. The center expects to soon take ownership of the site and has identified about 800 of an estimated 2,000-2,500 gravesites. UNF agreed to the research after seeing the wealth of real-world learning opportunities the project offered for various departments.

The work that students do at Red Hill Cemetery to map and record graves as well as conduct oral histories of surviving family members will enable us to record often-neglected voices before they fall irretrievably silent.

— Dr. David Sheffler

“We’ve already pulled in professors from anthropology, archaeology, English and history as well as students to begin photographing, surveying and mapping the cemetery,” Sheffler said. “The project offers many learning opportunities — oral history, writing projects, documentaries and archival research — as well as a chance for students to contribute information that will memorialize those buried there. I would like to see the project build over time, and possibly be incorporated into our undergraduate curriculum.”

Dr. Robert Thunen, associate professor and chair of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work, helped bring in laser sensing technology called LIDAR — Light Detection and Ranging — to provide a detailed surface map highlighting changes in elevation. This data will be used to create a 3D map of the space. In addition to using the technology, opportunities are abundant for students in various disciplines to get a wide variety of real-world experiences like delving into archival and newspaper research for burial information, conducting personal interviews of descendants and more. Sheffler said he has already talked with several individuals who are interested in telling their stories about relatives buried at Red Hill.

Ideally, Sheffler and the other researchers would like to develop a database and website that would allow online visitors to click on specific gravesites to learn the names of the deceased as well as some information about them.

Dr. Sheffler with UNF students, documenting gravesites.Nick Iorio, a first-year history grad student, is interested in helping to create that database. He believes the project provides a great opportunity for UNF students to do some interesting fieldwork as well as benefit from collaboration with researchers from many disciplines. But the work will have its challenges. Thus far, he has helped to clear brush on the site and survey the area, which he described as overgrown. “Some of the graves are actually above ground with stone, but most are unmarked,” Iorio said. “It looks just like a portion of the woods. You wouldn’t know it’s a cemetery until you start walking around.”

Though UNF won’t be working to restore the cemetery, Sheffler and those involved see the project as a way to show respect for past generations of Americans. “The work that students do at Red Hill Cemetery to map and record graves as well as conduct oral histories of surviving family members will enable us to record often-neglected voices before they fall irretrievably silent,” Sheffler said.


Research Roundup: Documenting Red Hill
by Marsha Blasco
UNF Journal, Winter 2019

View the Journal article here.