by Tim Gilmore, 6/18/2020
Cooking for Martin Luther King, Jr., Maude Burroughs Jackson says, was one of the greatest honors of her life. It was in St. Augustine, 1964, just before one of the three times she went to jail for marching for her rights. She cooked him steak and fixed a salad.
“We were college students,” she says, “and he’d come right into the room and sit down on the floor with us.” She asked him how he could be equally at ease with activists and presidents and he said, “You talk to people about their families.”
We’re standing in the front room of the house her father built by hand in 1942, deep in Clay County, six miles south of Middleburg High School, and looking at a large ’60s drawing of Maude, Martin Luther King, scenes of a lunch counter sit-in and a marcher with a boycott sign. Some of the rusted tools her father Edd used to clear the land and build this house, 20 years before Maude marched with Dr. King, hang on a wall in the old tin roofed one room schoolhouse. There’s a scythe, a two man saw, a pair of rusted spring calipers.
Maude’s family came to Hill Top from Georgia and South Carolina in 1926. Her father worked at the nearby turpentine camp. She entered first grade in 1947 in the one room schoolhouse she ended up saving from destruction in 1995.
Hill Top began as a small confluence of black families in the 1890s. When it was barely a community, people referred to it as Across the Creek and Howard’s Quarters, named for an overseer. Arriving by way of Black Creek and Green Cove Springs, black men worked for turpentine companies and their families lived in small woodframe company houses. They grew collards and mustards and potatoes, okra and corn, peas and beans and tomatoes.
Despite usual company exploitation of black workers in the early 1900s, when families saved up a little money, they bought land up from the creek on top of the hill. And so they began to call the community.
Grant Forman, the last survivor of early Hill Top, died in 1951. Though a community history says Forman died at 104 years old, his epitaph says he was born in 1868. Today we stand at his grave in Grant Forman (sometimes called Fowler) Cemetery. My sister Wanda and I wandered Hill Top’s dirt roads and memories with Maude Burroughs Jackson for three hours before she casually mentioned Forman’s buying back part of his property years after being “burnt out.”
I ask her what she means, though I know before I know. She says she doesn’t like to focus on it. The brief history printed in 2011 refers vaguely to “a significant racially motivated disturbance in 1905.” What that means is that a mob of white racists burnt down Forman’s house and he took his family back to South Carolina. The mob wasn’t officially the Ku Klux Klan, since the Klan didn’t form again, after being disbanded by Congress in 1871, until 1915 at Stone Mountain, Georgia, but these racists were no less terrorists. The history says this “event” caused “most of the black people to leave their homes and land in fear of their lives.”
“Before leaving,” Maureen Jung writes in “A Life on Hill Top: Restoring a Community of Hope,” Forman “arranged to mail his annual property taxes of $4 to Frosard Buddington. The Middleburg businessman agreed to pay them, enabling Forman to keep the land until he felt safe enough to return.” After all, he’d left South Carolina to work in Northeast Florida turpentine camps long enough to apply for 160 acres under the Federal Homestead Act of 1862, cleared forest, built a home, mined a clay deposit and took care of his mother until she died the same year racists ransacked Hill Top.
By the time Forman moved back to Florida, Buddington had died and his son Frosard, Jr. took half of Forman’s land. He claimed Forman had ceded him the land by not paying taxes for three years while incapacitated by an accident while working on a South Carolina railroad. Though Forman now owned half his original land grant, whether or not Buddington’s appropriation was entirely legal, he sold parcels to both white and black settlers.
Middleburg Colored School, built in 1903, just two years before the burning of Hill Top, stood down Highway 21. Maude walked two and a half miles to get there in the morning. She adored her teacher, Alice E. Hunter Hall, whose photo hangs in the enclosed front porch of the schoolhouse-turned-museum, now the Hill Top Black Heritage Education Center. The building now stands in Hunter-Douglas Park, named for Alice Hunter and another elementary school teacher, Etta Douglas.
Alice was the only teacher for as many as 49 students from grades one through nine, though when Maude entered sixth grade, the school had grown large enough that she was sent to Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Green Cove Springs.
Inside the museum, close to where Maude remembers sitting, front left, in a “two-seater” desk with Sulia King in first grade, hang yellowed prom dresses from Dunbar High, 1958 and ’59. Alice Hunter lived in Green Cove Springs, but during the week stayed often in Hill Top with old Cush Jenkins, owner of the Friday night nickle theater, and Emma Berrings.
Though the school closed in 1968, it continued as a learning space for “adult education” classes, for tax preparation and for Clay County Fire Department training sessions. In fact, the fire department planned “to burn it down.” They often did that with old buildings, demolishing “eye sores” while training young firefighters.
So one day, says Maude, “I was sitting with my children in the car in front of the schoolhouse, having lunch,” when a firefighter came out and said, “You better get a good luck at it now. We’re gonna burn it down.” And Maude said, instinctively, “That’s my schoolhouse! You can’t do that!”
The poet Paul Laurence Dunbar died, 33 years old, in 1906. In saving the old schoolhouse, Maude merged the dreamer and doer of the Dunbar poem named for the former. “He did not wake until one day there gleamed / Thro’ his dark consciousness a light that racked / His being till he rose, alert to act. / But lo! What he had dreamed, the while he dreamed, / Another, wedding action unto thought, / Into the living, pulsing world had brought.”
Standing outside the school-turned-museum today, Maude remembers when she was a little girl. When she wasn’t in school, she says, she and her friends played school under the longleaf pines. They’d lay out borders for walls with the dark blades of what the kids called “African grass” and teach lessons to the dolls they made from old bottles wrapped in untwined rope. “We had nothing,” she says, “so we took nothing and made something.”
She remembers the first book she ever bought, spending 39 cents of her own earnings for a Little Golden Reading Book. Her father raised her and her siblings in Hill Top and when she visited her mother in inner Jacksonville, just down the street from Brewster Hospital, Maude brought coloring books to give sick children.
She remembers falling asleep in church in the midst of a revival meeting, then coming down to “the moaner’s bench” and “receiving the Holy Spirit.” She’s been a member of St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church, one of six churches in this community whose population, she estimates, is down to about 75, for 69 years. Cinder blocks turned sideways, the “holes” facing outward, form the cross beneath the steeple.
Two miles south of Forman Circle, the road that rings Hill Top, we approach Grant Forman Cemetery, also called Fowler Cemetery, where smaller older graveyards nestle inside graveyards. Wanda pilots her jeep. I’m in the back seat. In the front passenger seat, Maude points to where vandals removed the direction signs to the cemetery. Once, this graveyard stood back isolated in the woods. If you didn’t know where it was, you’d never find it. Now it’s ringed by brick houses with swimming pools and Trump flags on quarter acre lots.
Signs on chainlink gates warn, “Smile, you’re on camera.” It’s a shame a cemetery should require such surveillance. It’s a shame old graves can’t give themselves up to the earth in peace without the living haunting the living. It’s not the 17 gopher holes burrowed beside headstones and down under caskets that necessitate the cameras.
No one can repair the pain Maude suffered when vandals disinterred her infant grandniece and toppled her father’s and her husband Howard’s stones.
“I used to love to come out here and plant flowers and azaleas,” Maude says. “And Howard loved gardenias,” the elegant dark green leaves, those deeply ever sweet flowers of light. Several of the headstones knocked over have been set upright, but not Howard’s. It’s too heavy for one person to bring it back up.
One headline from eight months ago said, “Infant Remains Removed from Grave at Middleburg Cemetery, Clay County Deputies Investigating.” Makayla Paige Merriweather was stillborn, May 8, 2007. Despite all the pain and racism Maude’s endured in her life, nothing prepared her for finding her grandniece’s body pulled from her grave 12 years later and left lying on the sandy surface of the earth.
Time here moves in its own time, completely oblivious to ours. Fenced within fences are epitaphs like that of “Jonathan Knight, Capt, GA Militia, War of 1812, February 14, 1781 to February 17, 1852” and Jewish inscriptions like “Hiram, The Son of Moses & Susannah Prescott. Born May 17, 1826. Died, July 2, 1866.”
The gophers burrowing beneath headstones revere no dates and time here relates more directly to the centuries of longleaf pines. Into the earth at the corner of the headstone for Eddie James Burroughs, Sr., I see the flash of fur and the limbs shoveling and the burrower disappears beneath us.
“Mr. Edd” was Maude’s father. His parents picked oranges down south in Kissimmee. He’d worked his family up through turpentine camps from Howard’s Quarters to Buddington’s. The house he built on Hill Top is the oldest occupied house on the hill. Edd was Hill Top’s untrained barber, carpenter and driller of wells. His children owned houses on Burroughs Road, unpaved off Forman Circle. He told them, “Own your own house. Don’t rent. Even if you have to live in a matchbox, let it be your own matchbox.”
Maude stands by a blueberry bush and says, “We used to run all through these woods when I was a child picking huckleberries and blueberries.” She spies the light green unripe orbs on a mayhaw tree, remembers harvesting chinquapins, bursting chestnuts, and says, “We ate them all the time as kids, but not in graveyards.” The fruit grows up over graves like too-obvious metaphors.
Probably 90 graves lie hidden here. In a new back yard against old graves, someone’s boat sits on sinking concrete blocks. Gran Outside this cemetery, Confederate flags, 155 years after the Civil War ended, bluster through the landscape.
We’re standing among her husband’s, her father’s and black pioneer Grant Forman’s graves, and I’m starting to feel that every quietest movement my giant bumbling frame makes is boorish and intrusive when I ask Maude, “Do you think it was personal?” The theft of the signs? The toppling of headstones? The exhumation?
“No,” she says, “just somebody with hate in their heart.”
Destruction is so much easier than creation. It takes no thought and only an instant. Though she lived in Miami for more than two decades, the place where Alice Hunter nurtured her with an education called her back. This tin roofed one room schoolhouse and this Hill Top museum exist today because Maude’s heart is full of love.
I think of Reggie Bridges’s unofficial museum in historically black Brooklyn near Downtown. It filled the shotgun house he’d called home for decades. The development company Vestcor demolished it to build new apartments it said would bring “urban living” to Brooklyn. And I think of the Whetstonian, Walter Whetstone’s “outsider art” museum—“If Smithson can have the Smithsonian, Whetstone can have the Whetstonian”—now falling into disrepair in urban LaVilla. “There’s a lot of black history around here,” Walter would say, “including me.”
Most living disappears into the earth and the Spiritus Mundi forever, leaves no trace, though each life is dense with living as a neutron star. I’ve always been astonished at the kindness and graciousness older black people have given me, despite the way people with my skin color have treated people with theirs so often throughout their lives. This kind and generous and lovely and brave and brilliant woman welcomes me and my sister to the top of the hill like we’re not strangers at all, like we’re family, and I want to know how to be like that in the world.