Media Coverage

Preservation Society of Charleston gets support for documenting Black cemeteries

preservation-admin , June 4, 2022

Read the original Post and Courier article here. 

Charleston Fire Department Photo 4_cropped.jpgFirefighter Derek Norton (from left), volunteer Jacob Lutz, firefighter Nick Boyer and firefighter Rob Tackett helped with some excavation work at the Heriot Street Black cemetery last month. The firemen are based across the street at Engine Company 9. Grant Mishoe/Provided

The lot between the Charleston Squash Club and Carter’s City Self-Storage on Heriot Street is easy to miss. It appears overgrown and empty, but looks can be deceiving.

That ground holds the remains of more than 2,000 African Americans who were buried there between 1865 and 1965.

The Heriot Street cemetery is one of many Black cemeteries scattered throughout Charleston and is among the least desecrated. Others have been paved over, built upon, dug up, obscured or belittled by unscrupulous developers and those who stand to gain something at the expense of the dead.

Now, the Preservation Society of Charleston wants to make it easier to discover details about these sacred places before the bulldozers and cranes get to work. A $50,000 grant from the National Park Service will help the nonprofit launch its “Mapping Charleston’s Black Burial Grounds” initiative, a collaborative effort to produce a comprehensive inventory of the city’s lost, forgotten, overlooked and unprotected cemeteries.

Mathews, Samuel - 1.jpgThe headstone for Samuel Matthews, located in the Heriot Street cemetery. Grant Mishoe/Provided

The main goals of the two-year project are to create a centralized database of burial grounds, determining their boundaries and contents and providing GIS data the city of Charleston can use as a planning and preservation tool.

The city already has taken steps to protect cemeteries. Council members passed a gravesite protection ordinance in September 2021 making it illegal for anyone to destroy or desecrate a burial ground. The ordinance also requires developers and contractors to immediately stop working on a gravesite and report it to authorities once they become aware of it. No work on the gravesite can commence without an ordinance from the state or county and the city building official.

The ordinance, and the NPS grant application, were a response to threats posed earlier that year by development in Cainhoy, where construction plans in the Oak Bluff neighborhood impacted an adjacent, poorly documented Black burial ground, prompting the Department of Health and Environmental Control to issue a temporary stop-work order.

City officials intervened in renovation work at 88 Smith St., where a private owner digging in the yard disturbed graves. But the rules are generally difficult to enforce without more documentary evidence and oversight. Permitted work at both sites later resumed.

red flag markers.jpg (copy) (copy)Red flags mark graves behind 88 Smith St. in September 2020. The property was once Trinity cemetery, where 1,653 Black people were buried. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Even the federal government has gotten involvedA bill passed the Senate in December 2020 that would authorize the Department of the Interior to conduct a comprehensive study of Black burial grounds nationwide. The legislation, if passed by the House where it is currently held up, and if signed into law by the president, also would pave the way for Congress to establish the African American Burial Grounds Network — a project enabling historians, archaeologists and preservationists to coordinate efforts, create a nationwide database, receive grant funding and more.

“This work ties into a broader national conversation,” Preservation Society President and CEO Brian Turner said. “Our aim is to ensure proper care for the resting places of those who built our cities yet were denied equal access to land and financial resources.”

‘What the community wants’

The efforts to identify and secure graveyards in the city began in earnest after remains were found in 2013 near the Gaillard Center when the building was being renovated. The late Ade Ofunniyin, an anthropologist and adjunct professor at the College of Charleston, started the nonprofit Gullah Society and assembled a small team of researchers who began the process of documenting Black burial grounds in the area.

The Gullah Society dissolved after Ofunniyin’s death in 2020, but its work continues. The Anson Street African Burial Ground Project has been investigating the remains of 36 people found near the Gaillard and arranging for a permanent memorial. Leaders at the Preservation Society have embraced Ofunniyin’s mission and made it their own. The International African American Museum has thrown support behind the latest initiative and the city has endorsed it.

“Together we recognize the urgent need for more data and information about African American burial sites to help inform land-use planning so as to avoid harmful impacts to gravesites, especially those which are unmarked,” Mayor John Tecklenburg wrote in a letter of support that accompanied the grant application.

Heriot Street cemeteryA large lot on Heriot Street, between the Charleston Squash Club and Carter’s City Self-Storage, is an old Black cemetery where more than 2,000 people were buried. Grant Mishoe/Provided

Turner said the NPS grant will help city officials and preservationists modernize their toolkit.

“The city doesn’t have a tool to flag development proposals that could impact known cemeteries,” he said. “They are not thought of as historic resources.”

The erasure of the African American landscape is not limited to burial grounds. Turner wants the cemetery mapping project to be part of a larger effort in the region and beyond to document the contributions of Black people.

“Fundamentally, community engagement has to be part of the process,” he said. “We would be irresponsible if we didn’t lead with community dialogue to discern what the community wants.”

DeMett Jenkins, the International African American Museum’s director of education and engagement for faith-based communities and a member of the African American Cemeteries Restoration Project committee, said she hopes every cemetery eventually is located, restored if possible, named and marked, and that all who are buried within them are identified.

BW - Heriot Street Cemetery Deed S14-323.jpgThe first page of a three-page property deed for the Heriot Street cemetery. Grant Mishoe/Provided

“We can’t erase what history has done, but we can certainly respect what was there,” she said.

To do so will depend in part on community involvement, since many alive today likely know where their ancestors are interred. She believes that the new museum can play an important role in helping to uncover and share this history, and in making genealogical connections once the Center for Family History is up and running.

More proactive

Robert Summerfield, the city’s director of planning, said incorporating information provided by the Preservation Society into the GIS system will enable developers (and anyone else) to access a new layer of data regarding burial sites during the preparation phase of a construction project. He believes this will result in fewer surprises.

“It’s 100 percent about trying to be more proactive, so people don’t get caught up after investing millions in a project that could require changes,” Summerfield said.

He added that the collaboration with the Preservation Society is welcomed.

“You’ve got to have somebody who can look at the older records, maps and survey data that may be available, then piece it together, like a true Indiana Jones-type of project,” he said. “Like everything, it’s a resource issue, which is why it’s really great that we have a partner in the project.”

The grant money likely will be spent researching the Heriot Street cemetery, Turner said. The archaeological firm Brockington and Associates will be engaged to help define the boundaries, conduct surface testing and perform other survey work.

Fuller, Nat.jpgAfrican American chef Nat Fuller is among the people who were interred at the Heriot Street cemetery. Grant Mishoe/Provided

Researcher Grant Mishoe, who previously was affiliated with the Gullah Society, has been investigating this property for years.

Among the more than 2,000 people buried there are chef Nat Fuller, two victims of the 1886 earthquake and at least four Black firefighters. Mishoe estimates that about 80 people were laid to rest in the cemetery each year beginning in 1875.

For years, it was thought the property had no deed. The city used it to store heavy equipment for a while, and occasionally sent someone to cut the grass. Mishoe found the deed, which dates to 1863. The land once was part of Rat Trap Plantation and it was purchased by a group of African Americans after the owner died and his property was subdivided into smaller lots.

Work to do

Last month, Mishoe and his colleagues spent some time examining the cemetery. They found about 35 headstones, metal nameplates, casket handles and other small pieces of hardware before deciding to stop. Assisting them for a spell were a few firefighters from Charleston Fire Station 9 across the street. They had heard about the Black firemen interred there and wanted to help.

Baxter, Amos - 2.jpgAmos Baxter died in 1883 and was buried in the Heriot Street cemetery. Grant Mishoe/Provided

Mishoe said the cemetery includes some caskets just 12 inches from the surface, suggesting the possibility of more than one layer of people laid to rest within. Some of the headstones featured ornate decorations, others mere scratchings. One they found was made of granite and included a brass nameplate, indicating that the family could have been of some means.

A few of the people buried in the cemetery were born in Africa and Haiti. Most were born in South Carolina.

“This was the first cemetery I started working on 30 years ago,” Mishoe said. “There was equipment parked on it. People walked through it. It was out of sight, out of mind.”

Not anymore.

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