Ghostly tale from coastal Georgia about a mysterious grave marker and the brave woman who lies there.
Adapted from folklore by Craig Dominey and Curtis Richardson
On the Georgia coast, there is an island called St. Simons Island – a beautiful place where the sea laps against the sandy shores, the Spanish moss sways gently in the salty breeze, and there is a real sense of peace.
But St. Simons is also a place of mysterious and tragic stories – some true, and some folktales that have become legends. One of these stories concerns a lone grave marker sitting a few yards off the main highway. What is strange about this grave is that no vegetation grows around it – no trees, no grass, and no moss.
The most popular version of this story takes place over 100 years ago, when large rice plantations were in operation up and down the coast. One day, the plantation owners on St. Simons decided they were going to hire a schoolmarm to teach their children. So they found a young woman from Ohio named Margaret to come down and live on the island as the local teacher. She was a wise woman, for she had traveled in Europe and had attended a number of well-known schools. Margaret would teach the white plantation children during the day – but at night, she would teach the black slave children whose parents toiled day and night on the plantations. The plantation owners did not like this, for they did not want the slaves to be educated in any way. They thought that, if the slaves became educated, they might rise up and attack their captors.
But Margaret was headstrong, for she had seen how other people lived around the world, and firmly believed that blacks were as deserving of an education as whites. Since Margaret was such a good teacher, the white plantation owners reluctantly looked the other way. But they became very suspicious of Margaret, and kept a close eye on her.
There was one little slave boy named Joshua who Margaret liked to teach the most. Joshua soaked up knowledge like a sponge, for he felt that a good education was his ticket to freedom. Joshua especially loved English literature and poetry. Long after the other slave children had left school, he would stick around and beg Margaret to read to him some more.
Margaret was truly touched by Joshua’s eagerness, and found herself growing close to him. But Joshua never got a chance to use his newfound knowledge. One day, a slave uprising erupted on one of the plantations. During the furor, a white slave owner was killed. Later that evening, an angry white mob rode through the island and started beating the horrified slaves, whether they were part of the uprising or not. They kicked down the door of Joshua’s home and savagely attacked his parents. When Joshua leapt to his mother’s defense, a young white man viciously clubbed him in the head, killing him instantly.
Margaret took the news of Joshua’s death hard. She was so grief stricken that she isolated herself from the community. The only time she would speak to anyone was when she was teaching the children. The rest of the time, she wandered the backroads of the island, alone and sad.
It was while she was walking down an island road one day that she had a strange feeling she was being watched. She looked above her and saw a large black raven flying overhead, seemingly following her. As the days passed, the same raven would always seem to be around her. Whenever she arrived at school in the morning, the raven would perch upon the windowsill and watch her teach the children. And when she would go home, the raven would follow her and perch in a tree near her front door.
At the end of one of the school days, after all of the children had left, Margaret was cleaning the classroom while the raven watched her from the window. She looked at the bird and thought about how much she missed Joshua, for this was the time of day she used to teach him one-on-one. She picked up a poetry book and began to read to the raven. The raven bobbed its head up and down, as if understanding what Margaret was reading. Margaret smiled and read more poetry to the bird, and before she knew it, she was reading lessons to the bird every day after school. Margaret would sometimes laugh at herself for reading aloud to a bird, but strange as it was, she found it to be a good way to deal with her grief.
Late one afternoon, some white children returned to school to pick up some belongings they had left behind. When they got to the school, they saw Margaret speaking to the large black raven on the windowsill, reading the day’s lesson. They ran back to their parents screaming, “The teacher’s a witch! She’s a witch! She’s brought that little black boy Joshua back from the dead as a bird!”
The parents didn’t believe them at first, but they agreed to accompany the children back to the schoolhouse. When they got there, they also saw Margaret reading poetry aloud to the bird. When they saw Margaret smile at the bird, and the bird nod its head back, the parents ran back to town and, like their children before them, screamed “The teacher’s a witch!”
The islanders were a close-knit, fiercely religious community, and were frightened of anyone who practiced black magic or witchcraft. The rumors of Margaret being a witch also fueled many islanders’ long-held suspicions about her. So it wasn’t long before an angry white mob marched to the school, dragged Margaret outside and killed her, leaving her body for the vultures.
When the time came to bury her body, one of the plantation owners had pity for Margaret. He tried to have her buried at Christ’s Church, a famous church on the island where John Wesley had preached. But the other plantation owners wouldn’t hear of a witch being buried in a church cemetery, or in any other cemetery on the island. So the kind owner buried her body on a small piece of land he owned off the main road. He had a grave marker made for her that was inscribed with three simple words – “A Beloved Teacher.”
Within a month, the locals who happened to visit the grave noticed that all the vegetation had died within a few feet of where Margaret was buried. And for the next hundred years, nothing grew around the grave – no trees, no grass, no moss.
If you’re ever in the area, ask one of the locals where the grave marker is and see for yourself. You’ll see that nothing grows around where they buried the beloved teacher.
Check out this student film adaptation of A Beloved Teacher by students at Dodge County High School, Eastman, GA.:
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