Preservation of African-American Cemeteries

South Carolina SC African-Americans Grave Matters – Introduction Preservation of African-American Cemeteries

Preservation of African-American Cemeteries

The differences between "white" and "black" graveyards often result in serious damage, loss, or legal entanglements.

Profit margins may encourage "underestimating" the size of the graveyard, or even ignoring its existence altogether. At least one court case in South Carolina has focused on the size of an African-American cemetery. In another situation a property owner apparently moved all of the grave markers to make it more difficult to identify the cemetery.

Cemeteries may not be recognized until construction has already begun. This was the case in the Mount Pleasant cemetery, although here the construction crews acknowledged their responsibility and immediately stopped as soon as the cemetery was found.

Efforts may be made to have the cemetery declared "abandoned," allowing its more convenient and expeditious removal. The legal definition of "abandoned," however, fails to understand the nature of African-American cemeteries, their use, and their importance to the community.

Although South Carolina has laws protecting cemeteries, they are unevenly applied. Many law enforcement agencies and coroners don't seem to have the manpower or enthusiasm to aggressively protect cemeteries. Further, the expense of legal action is often great and may be too late to save fragile resources.

The King Cemetery in southern Charleston County provides an excellent case study. Situated on the edge of a proposed borrow pit and possible land fill, the cemetery was at first unrecognized by County government. Only when the cemetery was recognized archaeologically and recorded as a potentially significant archaeological site was the impact of the proposed project on the graves taken into account. Although documentary history was not found, the general location of the cemetery was shown on maps and one of the three individuals identified by stones in the cemetery could be found through death certificate records. This record not only identified the individual as African-American, but also revealed the name of the graveyard as the "King Cemetery."

Unfortunately, the views and information of the local community were never sought by the County – which missed an exceptional opportunity to involve the African-American population in the decision-making process. The County declared the cemetery "abandoned," failing to recognize that the local community was well aware of its presence and still had strong ties to the property. An article in the Charleston, South Carolina Coastal Times found that a local resident, Sarah Middleton, who is nearly 100 years old, vividly remembers walking in funeral processions to the King Cemetery. Other members of the local black community are equally aware of the cemetery and could point out its boundaries, where the fence used to stand, and even where the gates were which allowed access to the graveyard.

While archaeological techniques may be used to identify cemetery locations and the number of graves, this approach is not always appropriate. Like any other technique it can vary from leaving virtually no impact on the graveyard to highly intrusive.

Methods which leave little or no impact include searching for grave depressions, noting the location and distribution of grave goods and plantings, using a metal or fiberglass probe to help identify grave shafts, using a soil auger to study soil profiles, and using soil compaction testers, also known as penetrometers, to help gauge where graves may have been dug.

Slightly more intrusive is the use of limited hand excavation, cleaning small areas in the search for grave stains. This may be necessary to confirm the presence or absence of graves in particular areas. Such work can usually be done in a way that the character of the graveyard is not altered and that restoration is simple.

Some techniques, however, may cause extensive damage to the surrounding area. Examples of this include the large-scale stripping of soil with bulldozers to identify graves over a broad area. Most often used when the cemetery is to be completely moved, the removal of vegetation and the drastic alteration of landscape may be seen by many as damaging the sacredness of the spot. Others may legitimately see such stripping as unnecessary, especially when the cemetery is not to be moved, given the extensive oral history which is usually readily available.

The technique or techniques used should be approved by those who have ties with the cemetery. While it is appropriate for the archaeologist to offer suggestions, it is essential that the wishes and feelings of the descendants always be the guiding factor in cemetery research.

Help Preserve African-American Graveyards

Perhaps the single most important step you can take to preserve and protect African-American graveyards is to keep their history alive. If you are an older member of the community and know of such a cemetery, tell your children and grandchildren about it. If you can, take them out to the property and show them what you know about the graveyard. If you are a young member of the community, ask questions – Where were the graveyards? What families were buried there? How many people were buried there? What were the cemeteries called?

By keeping the history of these cemeteries alive you are helping to make sure that others can learn about this heritage. Try to make contact with the property owner and ask them for the right to visit the cemetery. Help them understand that you feel as strongly as about this graveyard as they do about where their relatives are buried. Work to find compromises which allow access while respecting the rights of the property owner.

You must also, however, be alert to dangers. You must be aware of survey parties flagging the property, efforts to post the property, changes in ownership, the erection of new fences or the locking of gates, and the appearance of heavy equipment. While there are unscrupulous individuals, many people are simply not aware that a cemetery exists on their property.

If you feel that a cemetery is about to be damaged or destroyed, contact the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology at 803-777-8170. This agency coordinates with law enforcement, medical examiners, and coroners and may be able to provide you with additional guidance and assistance. By contacting the Site Files Manager at this agency you will be able to officially record any cemetery you know of. The site file manager will help you complete the necessary paperwork and assign the site a permanent number. Although this doesn't guarantee protection, it will help ensure that land planners are aware of its location.

To report vandalism or damage to cemeteries, contact your county coroner or sheriff.

For information on laws protecting African-American cemeteries and for help in recording graveyards as archaeological sites:

Deputy State Archaeologist/Site Files Manager
South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology
University of South Carolina
Columbia, SC 29208
803-777-8170

For information on preservation strategies and for technical expertise on stone conservation:

Ms. Lynette Strangstad
Stone Faces and Sacred Spaces
PO Box 59
Mineral Point, WI 53565
608/987-3222

You may also contact us here at Chicora Foundation and we will help put you in contact with others that may be able to provide assistance.

Chicora Foundation, Inc
PO Box 8664 • 861 Arbutus Drive
Columbia, South Carolina 29202-8664
803.787.6910

Grave Matters Articles

  • Introduction to African-American Cemeteries in South Carolina
  • Archaeology and African-American Cemeteries
  • History of African-American Cemeteries
  • Differences between African-American and Euro-American Cemeteries
  • Preservation of African-American Cemeteries
  • Additional Resources


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