Preservationists pushing for better protections for Charleston burial sites
preservation-admin , July 22, 2021
CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) — An abandoned burial site is getting some renewed attention following a construction project. The home at 88 Smith Street is located on the site of two African American burial grounds.
A stop-work order was issued for the property earlier this month after city officials learned the owner did not have permits for remodeling work. It was a relief for local archaeologists like Dr. Grant Gilmore, a professor at College of Charleston. Gilmore is helping preserve what’s left on the property alongside The Gullah Society and the Preservation Society of Charleston.
“What was left on the surface out there were burial markers made of all different materials. A lot of it is marble, some of it is slate,” Gilmore said. “They were broken up for the most part and used as pavers in a garden that we believe was probably built in the 1940s or 1950s.”
The archaeologist’s relief was short-lived. Not long after the stop-work order, the owner was granted remodeling permits since there’s no law on the books requiring property owners to protect or preserve burial sites.
“The biggest lesson that we can take away from this experience so far is that Charleston absolutely needs an archaeology ordinance,” Gilmore said. “I would suggest we also need a separate and very strong burial ground ordinance in Charleston as well. Much has been lost due to development and you know cities evolve and change over time but we’re in the 21st century now.”
Preserving the gravestones is important to the neighbors over at Bethel Church United Methodist Church. Pastor Susan Leonard said she’s fascinated by the news next door.
“I think that I am in awe of how much history remains underneath our feet,” Leonard said. “Even the parking lot on which we stand now covers a cemetery.
Grave markers are lined up along the outer perimeter, cleaned and preserved throughout the year.
“These stones as we understand them were brought from places beyond our border here to be maintained. They are stones of African Americans and daily there are Gullah tours who come through. The tour guide Alfonzo interprets some of them.”
Leonard said they’re discussing ways they can honor those buried on the other side.
“Right now, people who tour here who know about the African American cemetery on the other side must sit on the bus and look over the fence,” she said. “What would it be like for us to create space, at least from our side of the property, to give access to a cemetery that has historical and religious value for people.”
Dr. Gilmore said more needs to be done to ensure history isn’t lost forever. He said the backyard is full of mysteries.
“The most evocative burial stone fragment that we saw was for a man named Adam. He was enslaved. It had his birthdate and it said that he was enslaved. But that burial stone is now gone. It’s missing. It was taken from the site by somebody unknown.”