It was known as the “Round Hole,” a pooling spot where muddy waters cooled the skin and stained the white robes of slaves who were baptized there more than 200 hundred years ago.
On Saturday, more than 50 people gathered at the wooded wetland in Riceboro, along E.B. Cooper Highway, just a few feet away from the city’s First African Baptist Church, for a groundbreaking ceremony where a soon-to-be 1,600-foot Historic Baptismal Trail will begin.
“I am honored to be here today with someone who was actually baptized here,” Sonny Emmert said, looking at Riceboro resident Dorothy Brunson, 101, who was seated in the crowd.
Emmert is a coastal resource specialist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. He said he was pleased to work with Riceboro Mayor Bill Austin to get $42,000 from the DNR’s coastal incentive grant program for the project.
“The city applied and they were accepted,” he said. “I was very impressed by the mayor’s enthusiasm for this project. It is very important for the character of the community. When you think about it, it’s a win-win for us. This [trail] will maintain the heritage that makes our coast so important.”
Denise Cooper, a church member and a committee member of the area’s Progressive Missionary Baptist Association, said the spiritual aspect of the site is of as much importance as its historical significance.
“I want the community to know that this is where the original slaves were baptized. It was a desolate place, where the saints prayed that the blessings would flow to their families,” she said. “That is why this is a sacred place. It’s not just a stagnant hole. Just like the river flows, the prayers of the saints, who moved north, flowed up and back again. It was very important to the people and the church.”
In June, FABC will celebrate its 150th anniversary. Cooper said the church, which was sold to blacks by white slave owners in 1878 for $225, is tied to the trail.
“So many who attended the church were baptized here,” she said.
Centenarian Brunson was one of them. She said she and her cousin, Mary Baggs, were baptized when they were about 12.
“I never thought I would live to see this day,” she said.
The trail’s completion has been set for mid-Summer. Once complete, said P.C. Simonton & Associates engineer tech Keith Causeway, it will include a parking area, a mulch trail, bridge across the baptismal water and a deck.
SNF Holding Co./Chemtall will begin clearing land for the parking lot in 30 days as part of “in-kind” matching contributions the DNR requires for the project’s funding, Causeway said.
The mayor said he, with the help of Riceboro resident Modibo Kadalie and the members of the city’s Platform Party, plan to keep pushing for the site to become a state and national historically registered site.