The tale of plantation owner John Lambert is highly unusual. He was rumored to have been abandoned as an infant on the Lambert Bridge in South Carolina, for which he was named. The legend claims that he was passed between plantation families as a child, accumulated some money as a young man, went into the livestock business, and then applied for a land grant. By the time he died, John owned nearly 1000 acres. Yet, he never married or had children. According to the legend, he deliberately refrained from marrying – out of fear that he might marry into his unknown biological relatives.
Factually, we know this:
As I previously posted, John encouraged the religious instruction of his slaves - even going so far as to hire the local black preacher named Mingo (a freed man) to make weekly visits to the Lambert Plantation for the religious instruction of his slaves.
Additionally, John Lambert made a very curious request in his will. He stated that his estate (both land and slaves) would be kept whole and continue to operate under the supervision of the Midway Church. The plantation’s profits were to be donated to poor or widowed families in Midway.
As a result:
For the next ~60 years following John's death, his original 31 slaves and their descendants lived and worked free of white oversight, except for the infrequent visits of the trustees. Because of this, the Lambert Plantation became one of the few fragile areas of African American socialization and independence in the South.
The heavy emphasis on religious instruction also fostered Gullah-Geechee culture – where old traditions, immersed in magic and superstition, thrived and mixed with Christian practice.
To this day, Lambert’s reasoning is unknown. Perhaps his generosity was owed to his religious convictions and involvement in the Midway Church. Or, perhaps there was more to this story. Regardless, he was highly-regarded and overwhelming liked throughout both white and black communities, and has since been called “the pride of Midway.” His trust has evolved over the years (and no longer relies on slave labor), still surviving to benefit the residents of Midway.
While some slaves had been able to attend services in the gallery of the Midway Church, additional services were held outside the building and at nearby plantations, led by both white and black preachers. The Midway Church advocated for the role of the black preachers – even going so far as to purchase their freedom in exchange for the promise that they would “give themselves wholly to their work.”
It was rare that Southern plantation owners would encourage their slaves to be taught religious ideals, much less instructed by a freed man. One of these freed men was named Mingo, who lived on Peter Winn’s plantation. On Sundays, between the morning and afternoon services at the church, Mingo would preach at the ‘stands.’
“They would meet in the piney woods a short way from the Midway Church. The place was fitted up with booths of bushes with wide seats and a raised platform in the center, on which Mingo stood, called ‘the stand.’” (Erskine Clarke)
Mingo was hired to visit the Lambert Plantation weekly and preach to the enslaved. The plantation has been described as “an unusual place” in that John Lambert was one of the first planters in the area to advocate for the religious instruction of his slaves. Mingo preached there until his death. His position was then replaced by Jack, a well-liked Lambert slave who was purchased by the Midway Church to continue the tradition.
As I previously mentioned, Midway’s first church would serve as a foundation for local slave religion and Gullah-Geechee spirituality in Coastal Georgia.
Visitors are often surprised to hear that white members and their African American slaves would attend this same church. The Midway Church has a ‘slave gallery,’ where slaves sat during services. In the picture above – you will see a central entrance, which was used for the white attendants. The smaller door on the right was used for the enslaved attendants to enter the upstairs gallery.
In the years since the abolition of slavery and desegregation, many churches remodeled or removed their galleries, as they were no longer being used. At the time, this may have been viewed as progressive, but, consequently, it erased a significant feature of African American and Southern history, both of which are deeply intertwined with the church. Various preservation groups and churches have made recent efforts to restore galleries, where possible. The Midway Church is one of the few historical churches that retained its upstairs gallery in its entirety.
One of the most well-known (and somewhat scandalous) stories regarding those buried in Midway Cemetery is that of Senator John Elliott. John was born and raised locally, attended Yale University, and married Martha “Patsy” Stewart from Savannah. Martha was 17 when she married John - a widower old enough to be her father.
Martha was known for being beautiful, stylish, and having her choice of suitors. One of these suitors was her fellow Savannah native, James Bulloch (grandson of GA Governor Archibald Bulloch). James and Martha grew up together, but for reasons unclear, Martha wouldn’t marry him. Instead, she proceeded to take her time weighing her options – eventually attracting the attention of the much older John Elliott, who was known to be destined for the Senate. She began to court John Elliott – but imagine her shock when she learned that her childhood beau, James Bulloch, had proposed to John Elliott’s daughter!
Within a week, Martha became engaged to John Elliott – thus becoming the step-mother-in-law of her former suitor, James. The timing was questionable -- and, if that wasn't awkward enough -- Martha was younger than her husband's prior children.
The year that Martha married John Elliott, he was elected to Senate. She accompanied him to Washington, DC, where the young legislator’s wife turned heads. She welcomed the glamour and attention and was described as wearing an ostrich feather hat that “hung down to her belt.”
However, after only a decade, John Elliott passed away. Martha was widowed at only 30-years-old.
Elliott family tomb in Midway Cemetery. Resting place of John Elliott (Martha "Patsy" Stewart's first husband)
Posts are a combination of my own research, visits, and conversations, plus various information found around the web. I try to provide sources, but if you have specific questions, feel free to ask!