This story began with an e-mail from a reader, who saw a dilapidated home being demolished near the River Island community and feared that a "slave cemetery" was about to be bulldozed. Staff writer Jenna Martin went to the site, found the single headstone, and by following leads for several weeks discovered that there apparently is no cemetery in the area. Instead, Cora Freeman's long-lost headstone had been abandoned behind the home. If the stone had been part of a cemetery, the developers would have been forced to follow strict state guidelines for protecting or moving the graves.
More than 20 years ago, the headstone of a prominent black teacher from the 1800s mysteriously vanished from its Augusta resting spot.
The 3-foot stone was placed near the back porch of the Lucy Laney residence after a fire destroyed the home in 1986. The next day, the tombstone was gone and its whereabouts were never known -- until recently.
The headstone to Cora Freeman, who died in 1888 at the age of 26, stands in the midst of an Evans development. The inscription reveals that Freeman was a "teacher and friend" as well as a "Christian educator."
One man knew exactly who Freeman was. He had seen Freeman's headstone at the Laney home after the fire.
"I noticed at the back porch, at the back step, that stone was lying on the ground at Ms. Laney's house," said Dr. Jimmy Carter, an Augusta historian. "When I went back the next day, the stone was gone.
"It was a puzzle to me. Why would somebody walk away with a tombstone? What are they going to do with it, and where is it? We never saw it again."
The headstone is now in a desolate area within the River Island planned unit development off Blackstone Camp Road. Neither developers of the property nor a family of Freemans living nearby the site on Freeman Drive knew of the tombstone.
Throughout the years, the missing headstone also remained a mystery to Carter until he was contacted by Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History Executive Director Christine Miller-Betts for information about Freeman.
The contact proved to be fateful.
"There's always someone who knows, and so it's just something you have to work very diligently at doing in regard to acquiring the information," Miller-Betts said. "He (Carter) knew right away what I was talking about."
As it turns out, Freeman's life story is just as intriguing as her headstone's bewildering trip.
The Massachusetts native came to Augusta to teach in 1885 at the Haines Normal and Industrial Institute, according to a 1939 write-up in the school's yearbook.
"She was tenderhearted, kind, faithful and possessed the kind of personality which made her one greatly to be admired, even to this day," a passage in the yearbook states.
In fact, Freeman was the first teacher Laney hired at the school, Carter said.
The teacher, according to the passage, also helped Laney bear the "burdens and trials" when the school suffered from lack of funding and various epidemics.
"Obviously, she was impressive enough for Ms. Laney to take her on," Carter said. "She was widely respected and loved by everybody -- students, staff, the community."
Freeman's life was cut short when she was stricken with typhoid fever in 1888, but even her own death is riddled with mystery.
According to an Augusta Chronicle story from 1888, Freeman mistakenly was administered quinine to treat the fever and suffered effects from the drug.
The illness, and not the mistake, caused Freeman's death, the story stated.
The coroner was never notified, and Freeman's friends didn't dispute the cause of death, according to the article.
"The mere fact that they're reiterating that this mistaken drug had nothing to do with her death makes me suspect," Carter said. "That raises a flag with me."
Freeman's funeral was held at the Haines' campus on what is now Laney-Walker Boulevard. The service was well-attended, said Carter of what he's been told.
Freeman was buried in the Hill Cemetery near the Summerville Cemetery on Fitten Street in Augusta.
"Many African-Americans who made tremendous contributions during that period of time were buried there," Miller-Betts said.
How her headstone ended up in Columbia County remains unknown.
"It's had quite a travel, quite a trip," Carter said.
Both Carter and Miller-Betts are eager to retrieve the tombstone and would like to either place it back in the Hill Cemetery or add the marker to Laney's burial site.
Regardless of its future placement, Carter said Freeman's headstone needs to be returned to its rightful owners.
"It was not just hauled off," Carter said. "It was stolen. It really belongs at the Laney house."
Though some questions about the headstone might never be answered, Miller-Betts and Carter are relieved to have found the marker once again.
"It's so seldom that you have a story like this, and you can really put it together," Miller-Betts said. "This is amazing."
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