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Work starts on memorial where slaves once toiled
Riceboro Mayor Bill Austin and LeConte descendant George Boroughs break ground for The Walk: An African-American Tribute at the LeConte-Woodmanston Plantation. - photo by Photo by Jessica Duncan
    Thursday morning at the LeConte-Woodmanston Plantation, in the midst of chirping birds, buzzing cicadas and an occasional, forgiving breeze, ground was broken at the site of what will be The Walk, a tribute to Liberty County's African-American slaves.
    "The walkway will start in the gardens, and will be a 50,000 square foot brick memorial," said Mary Beth Evans, executive vice oresident of the LeConte-Woodmanston Foundation. "Every several stones will bear the name, age and plantation of a Liberty County person listed as a slave in the 1860 census. In that year, there were 6,000 slaves listed in the county and only 2,000 white folks."
    According to Evans, there are no similar memorials in the United States for African-American slaves.
    "Nothing like this has ever been done before. It is monumental and it's important," she said, "because it commemorates and it educates."
    The LeConte-Woodmanston Plantation was a 3,300-acre rice plantation from its construction in 1760 until after the Civil War, after which it was abandoned and fell into a state of disrepair.
    "The property was rediscovered in the early 1970s," Evans said, "and through the efforts of the Liberty County Historical Society, the Georgia Garden Club and later the LeConte-Woodmanston Foundation, we've been able to accomplish what you see here. You can imagine how overgrown it was when it was rediscovered, and the tremendous amount of work it has taken to get to this point."
    Yesterday's groundbreaking attracted city and county officials, many of whom felt strongly about the preservation of the plantation. John McIver, chairman of the Liberty County Commission, said, "On behalf of the board of commissioners and the county, we truly support the effort and the work that [the foundation] has done thus far. They play a very important role in the future of Liberty County."
    Bill Austin, mayor of Riceboro, added, "A lot of work has gone into this. We're very proud of it and even though it's not within our city limits, we embrace it as a part of our city."
    LeConte-Woodmanston is a non-profit foundation, and, since it doesn't receive any financial aid from the state, it relies solely upon donations for its survival. "Money is always an issue," said George Boroughs, a descendent of the LeConte family and a former member of the foundation's board. "We had several donations years ago and we keep eating away at them. They can't last forever. It's been said by others today, but money is just always an issue. If you love this place and love the ideas here, please let your wallets participate in that."
    Evans echoed Boroughs' sentiment, adding that donations of materials like gardening tools or gloves are also needed and appreciated.
    "Those things are really important," she said.
    As the morning progressed, talk of preservation led to talk of tourism and the way it could hugely benefit the plantation and the county.
    "I have to give you all credit for making the effort to preserve and enhance this property to the point where people will want to come by and visit and say that there were slaves, but they are not forgotten," McIver said.
Margie Love, vice president of the Liberty County Historical Society, said, "We are anxious to see [the plantation's] restoration as a major attraction."
    "Tourism dollars are clean dollars, no ecological concerns, and they can work," said state Rep. Al Williams, who called upon the state to do more to promote tourism. "Of the five major tourism events in Georgia, African-American history consistently is in the top five. We have a sleeping giant here that we have to talk about."
    In addition to city and county officials, many descendents of the LeCount family, who were slaves at the LeConte plantation and who adopted a modified version of the name after their release from bondage, were present yesterday. The 16 descendents present included Mayor Austin and Charisse Wilkins, a vocalist who sang the slave era spiritual "Soon I Will Be Done" in a rich, deep alto that carried across the plantation grounds.

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