Laurel Grove North Cemetery is the White half of a historically-segregated cemetery that dates back to before the Civil War. Its neighbor, Laurel Grove South Cemetery, was designated for the use of Black people.
Laurel Grove Cemetery, as both parts together were originally known, was established in 1852. Racially divided, it was physically divided too in the later 20th century by the construction of the I-16 37th Street Connector.
Laurel Grove North Cemetery is located a little to the southwest of the Historic District, and is less visited than the better-known Bonaventure Cemetery. Despite its lesser renown, it shares a lot of the charms of Bonaventure, with many fine examples of 19th-century funerary statues and moss-draped live oaks.
One of the most famous graves at Laurel Grove North is that of Girl Scouts of the USA founder Juliette Gordon Low. It is also the final resting place of Florence Martus, Savannah’s “Waving Girl” and of James Pierpont, composer of the holiday tune Jingle Bells.
The North part of the cemetery is one half of the burial ground created as Laurel Grove in 1852, to meet the city’s increasing need for burial space and to replace its old, full cemeteries (the current Colonial Park, and a built-over African-American graveyard located in the region of Whitefield and Calhoun Squares).
The new site was split, with the larger, northern portion designated for white burials, and the smaller, southern portion for African-Americans, most of whom were at that time enslaved.
The need for more burial plots was the main factor in the timing of the new cemetery, but changing concepts of how to build a healthy city decided its form and location.
By the mid century, the wet rice culture that surrounded much of the city was targeted as a source of disease, believed to produce dangerous “miasmas” (vapors that floated through the air and spread illness). As part of a broader effort to curtail this form of agriculture, the city purchased the Springfield Plantation, which lay to its southwest.
The location of Savannah’s old cemeteries reflected the former practice of burying people in graveyards near to town. By the mid 19th century, that was thought unhealthy – miasmas were also believed to emit from graves and sicken residents nearby. Larger cemeteries, located at some distance from the city limits, were now preferred: the new Springfield site seemed a suitable location for Savannah’s new cemetery.
Laurel Grove would serve as the main burial place for Savannah’s deceased for the rest of the 19th century, although some people (primarily the wealthier) chose to be buried instead in the more expensive lots in the privately-operated Bonaventure, then known as Evergreen, Cemetery located several miles east of the city. Laurel Grove remained a cheaper and more convenient alternative.
In 1907, the city bought Bonaventure Cemetery as a replacement for the by-then-full white section of Laurel Grove. The Black portion, now Laurel Grove South, remained in active use throughout the 20th century.
Laurel Grove was laid out at a time when cemeteries commonly doubled as city parks, visited by residents for picnics and recreation – in much the same way as in-town parks such as Savannah’s Forsyth Park would be used – as well as to remember the dead.
As was the trend for burial grounds of this period, Laurel Grove was accordingly landscaped and planted out in trees and shrubs, the lots and gravestones laid out amidst abundant greenery and winding streets. Today, it is still a beautiful cemetery, with many moss-hung live oaks, crepe myrtles and azaleas to add to its charm.
Laurel Grove North served as the main public cemetery for Savannah’s whites through the second half of the 19th century, and all classes of people – with their different grave and memorial styles – are represented here, from grand monuments designed by architects of national note to the more humble headstones of Savannah’s ordinary citizens.
Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts of the USA, was a Savannah native and one of the most influential women of her time.
After a childhood spent mostly in Savannah, Juliette Gordon Low lived much of her adult life overseas. Traveling and later settling in England with her husband William Mackay Low, she returned to Savannah after the failure of her marriage.
It was during her travels in Britain that she encountered the Scouting movement, and seeing the benefit that it would bring to Savannah’s girls, she introduced it there in 1912, later working to extend the organization across the United States.
Though few may have heard the name of James Pierpont, almost everyone has heard the song which he composed: Jingle Bells. Born in 1822 in Medford, Massachusetts, James Pierpont came to Savannah with his brother John, who had obtained employment as minister at the Unitarian Church. James worked as an organist at that same church.
It was there, in 1857, that he composed Jingle Bells (or The One Horse Open Sleigh, as it was then known). Jingle Bells did not become popular during Pierpont’s lifetime: he died in 1893, never knowing how widely known his festive song would become.
Phoebe Yates Pember, born to a wealthy Jewish family in Charleston, is best known for her influential role in the hospital care of soldiers in the Civil War. Pember was granted control of the Chimborazo Hospital (in Richmond, Virginia) as part of a move to place women in such positions so as to free up men for the battlefield. She later also published a widely-read account of her work during the war.
Florence Martus, or the “Waving Girl,” as she is popularly known, was born in Savannah on August 7 1868. Martus lived much of her life on the isolated Elba Island in the channel of the Savannah River, where her father and later her brother, both named George, were employed as lighthouse keeper.
Martus began one day to wave at the passing ships, a habit she continued – greeting each and every ship that sailed up the river – for 44 years, until George Jr’s retirement took her away from the island.
Florence Martus died on February 8 1943. She is buried beside her brother, who had died three years previously. A marker over their graves, depicting the lighthouse in which they lived, commemorates George’s role as lighthouse keeper and Florence’s as Savannah’s Waving Girl. A monument in Florence Martus’s memory was erected in the riverside Morrell Park in 1972.
Charles Green, born in a small English town near Birmingham, moved to Savannah in 1833, aged 26. He soon rose within the city’s social and business ranks, through his association with the cotton merchant Andrew Low. By 1850 he was one of the richest men in Savannah, constructing his home (the Green-Meldrim House, now owned by St John’s Episcopal Church and open to visitors) on Madison Square that year. He famously hosted General Sherman during the Civil War occupation of Savannah in 1864.
George Welshman Owens inherited substantial property from his father, Welsh immigrant Owen Owens. Later becoming a successful businessman in his own right, Owens was active in city and state politics, and worked in the law, banking and insurance industries, as well as operating several plantations. The home on Oglethorpe Square that Owens bought in 1830, the present Owens-Thomas House (today operated as a house museum), is one of Georgia’s best preserved Regency houses.
Laurel Grove Cemetery, 1hr30. With Historic Savannah Pub Crawl. Walking tour of Laurel Grove Cemetery. From $30 per person. Call 912-429-2440 for reservations. More details
Laurel Grove North Cemetery is administered by the City of Savannah. See the official webpage or call the cemetery department at 912-651-6843 for additional information.
Laurel Grove Cemetery is located outside of Savannah’s Historic District, to the southwest of its lower margin. It is around 2 miles from most central downtown attractions (see map). The North and South sections have separate entrances.
Address 802 West Anderson Street, Savannah, GA 31415
GPS coordinates (entrance) N 32.064656, W -081.106613
Opening hours Open daily, 8am-5pm.
Admission Admission is free.
Pets Leashed pets are welcome in outdoor spaces at Laurel Grove Cemetery.