Citing likely graves, DHEC stops work on Oak Bluff site in Cainhoy
preservation-admin , May 7, 2021
CAINHOY — The developer of the Oak Bluff subdivision must stop all work and arrange for a new archaeological survey of a portion of the property that includes an African American burial ground.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, which has jurisdiction over gravesites, sent a notice on May 5 to Crescent Homes’ Land Development Director Robert Pickard referring to “concerns about potential additional graves not being accounted for.”
Accompanying the email to Pickard were eight photographs of rectangular depressions in the ground taken the day before by Charleston Councilwoman Marie Delcioppo. Four of the depressions were in perfect alignment, and all were positioned east-west, which is typical of Christian burials, she said.
Christopher Stout, manager of DHEC’s Coastal Zone Consistency Section, shared the photos with John Leader, state archeologist with the South Carolina Institute for Archeology and Anthropology, and determined that “the site will need to be properly investigated before any further work can continue at the site as per condition #1 of the Coastal Zone Consistency certification,” he wrote in his email to Pickard.
Condition 1 states that if historic or cultural objects, including human remains, are discovered during the course of work, notice must be given to the State Historic Preservation Office and the SCIAA.
In this case, it’s up to the developer, Oak Bluff Development, to arrange for the archaeological study. Such field surveys can take several days to perform, sometimes longer, and result in a detailed report that can take weeks or months to complete.
Work can’t proceed until the results of the study are in. The likely gravesites, along with several known graves nearby, are located on a bluff that is part of the developer’s private property. Adjacent to the site is McDowell Cemetery, which is owned and managed by the Cainhoy Methodist Church and Cemetery “Old Ruins” Corp.
MaeRe Skinner, chairwoman of the “Old Ruins” Corp., has been working closely with Fred Lincoln, an African American community leader, to protect the graveyards. They want to combine them into one, but that likely would require the developer to relinquish active control of a portion of its property.
Still in dispute is the access road leading to McDowell Cemetery. Plans for Phase 1C of the Oak Bluff neighborhood would have replaced the road with a paved street incorporated into the subdivision, leaving users of the cemetery and adjacent burial ground no separate ingress and egress. Potential gravesites are located very near the road.
Lincoln had been asking for a pause in the work so archaeologists could better determine the precise location and number of graves. The developer had insisted on forging ahead with work because it had already fulfilled all land survey requirements and secured all necessary permits.
“Now we’ll know for sure,” Lincoln said. “Hopefully we can clear out minds that they’re not building houses on anyone.”
A request for comment from Pickard has gone unanswered.
Brian Turner, director of advocacy at the Preservation Society of Charleston, said he was glad the state was enforcing the conditions of the certification and appreciated the interventions of Delcioppo and Rep. Mark Smith, who met with the developer on April 30.
“We obviously work to make sure cultural resource laws are enforced, but the reality is that it takes political leadership to ensure transparency and accountability,” he said. “Public oversight has worked here. It shouldn’t necessarily take citizen activism to get this kind of outcome, but there is a place for it.”
Turner said he was heartened by the public interest in this issue.
“It’s exciting to know that people see this as a big issue in the context of development in the region, and that it’s something developers should be aware of,” he said.
Skinner, energized by the latest developments in her battle to protect the graveyards, was less circumspect.
“I’m hootin’ and hollerin’ over here,” she said.