Razing the Dead

Lowcountry develolpers disturb slave graves and lock out family members


Sarah Middleton is 100 years old and lives alone in a small frame house in Charleston County where her family has lived for more than 200 years. Her granddaughters, Willie Mae Green Grant and Bertha Lee Sanders, and other family members also live on the family-owned land.
Although Middleton is relatively healthy and surrounded by people who love and care for her, something is missing from her life: she has been barred from visiting the graves of her father, a husband, and a son for almost a half-century. The Old Alston Cemetery where they are buried was closed to her and other African-American families in the mid-1950s by the property owners.
Old Alston Cemetery is off Parkers Ferry Road near Jacksonboro, about 25 miles south of Charleston. The graveyard is several hundred yards off Parkers Ferry, concealed by woods and dense undergrowth. A locked metal gate and a fence surround the property.
Middleton's home is less than five miles away but it might as well be 500, say her granddaughters, who remember visiting the cemetery as little girls.
"We moved in with our grandmother when I was about nine years old," said Grant. "When [Middleton] sent us out to gather firewood, we always seemed to end up at the cemetery. But now there are too many woods and fences and gates in the way. I hope my grandmother gets to visit Old Alston before she dies."

Sarah Middleton has been unable to visit the graves of several family members since the 1950s.

Although Middleton still cannot visit Old Alston, she is now free to visit King Cemetery, another nearby African-American graveyard that until last month had been closed to family members and friends for nearly 50 years.
King Cemetery, which dates to the 1850s, is about a half-mile off Highway 17S on property known locally as Encampment Plantation just north of Parkers Ferry Road.
Middleton said many of her friends and acquaintances are buried at King Cemetery, and she remembers walking in funeral processions to the graveyard on "the Old Road," a tree-lined lane that still runs from what is now known as Highway 17S to the cemetery.
In those days, Middleton said "the body was laid out" in the home for bathing and dressing and other burial preparations. Coffins were built at or near the home of the deceased and then loaded onto horse-drawn wagons. Middleton remembers following "death wagons" in many funeral processions along the Old Road to King Cemetery.
"We dressed in black and sang hymns," she said. "If the funeral was late, some of us carried torches. It was a long time ago, but I still remember it."
Sanders and Grant said their grandmother wants to visit King Cemetery, and hopes that Old Alston will someday be opened to her.
"In those days," Grant said, "the people who owned the land set aside certain areas for blacks to bury, and then after generations often after the land was sold the land where the graveyards were located were closed to us and we were no longer allowed to bury there or ever visit again. Perhaps the opening of King Cemetery will lead to the opening of other African-American cemeteries before too many more of the old people die and it is too late for them to visit the graves of their loved ones."
King Cemetery wasn't rediscovered or reopened by accident. It first came to attention about a year ago in a dispute between Charleston County and the owners of land adjacent to the proposed site for a county dirt mine. The county said it needed the dirt for road work in that part of the county.
Russ and Lee Pye, owners of the adjacent land, said the thousands of gallons of water that would be pumped hourly from the 40-foot-deep, 20-acre pit would destroy the cemetery. The proposed mine site is part of the 750-acre Sheppard Tract, land the county bought for $1.5 million in 1991 to use as a burial ground for ash produced by the county's waste incinerator. The Sheppard Tract is part of what was once known as Encampment Plantation. The mine site borders the Pye property and is about 200 feet from King Cemetery, which is on land owned by Westvaco Corporation.

Construction in the Lowcountry often means competing with archaeological and preservation interests.

Westvaco has said it will protect King Cemetery just as it does some 27,000 other acres of "special areas" on its holdings and will allow family members and other "legitimate persons" to visit the graves.
Meanwhile, Charleston County paid an Atlanta company $11,000 for an archaeological survey of the cemetery in early February to determine its boundaries and the number of graves therein. About 156 graves were discovered, including four in a fire lane not previously believed to be within the borders of the graveyard.
Dr. Michael Trinkley, executive director of the Chicora Foundation, a Columbia-based nonprofit group dedicated to preserving the archaeological and cultural resources of the Carolinas, found two other graves on land that borders King Cemetery.
"It looks as if King Cemetery might be much larger than previously believed," Trinkley said at the site shortly after the county's archaeological survey was completed. "I probed only for 15 minutes or so and located the two graves on the Pyes' land."
Trinkley, the Pyes and others who viewed the cemetery after the survey said they were shocked at the way equipment operators scraped the boundary around the cemetery. One witness said bulldozers were used, but the county said the work was done with a backhoe.
Trinkley, on the other hand, had no complaint. Deputy State Archaeologist Dr. Jon Leader agreed, saying Garrow and Associates did "an excellent job."
But the dispute between the Pyes and the county is about more than the dirt mine and its effect on King Cemetery. There are other "archaeologically sensitive" areas near the juncture where land owned by the Pyes, Westvaco and Charleston County come together, including a Revolutionary War encampment; the site of the Stono Slave Rebellion of 1739; and the home of Robert Young Hayne, elected governor of South Carolina in 1832.
The dispute over the cemetery and the dirt mine has drawn the interest of Duke University professor Peter H. Wood, author of a prize-winning book, Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 to the Stono Rebellion. Wood said, "The field where the insurrection was quelled lay near Jacksonboro, as is clear in contemporary accounts, and apparently that site was on the ground now under dispute."
There are other "archaeologically sensitive" sites on the 750 acres owned by the county, according to an archaeological survey conducted by Garrow and Associates. On one site glass beads and burned bead fragments were found that "may represent a ritualistic practice associated with a slave burial," the survey said.
Other sites discovered in the survey include two "slave rows" associated with Encampment Plantation; a late 19th early 20th century domestic site with an unknown prehistoric component (Native American); and artifacts from several other prehistoric and historic sites.
In the meantime, the Pyes offered to buy a 35-acre parcel of the county's land that includes the dirt-mine site in late February, but the county turned them down, saying the land is worth more than the $1,000-an-acre offer. The county paid $2,000 an acre.
If the county had accepted their offer, the Pyes had intended to give it to Oak Hall Plantation Inc., a nonprofit corporation whose purpose is to preserve "archaeologically sensitive" land in the area. Oak Hall Plantation was created by the Pyes.
The land would also have been used as a buffer for King Cemetery, and the Pyes promised in their offer-to-buy document to provide access to the cemetery from Highway 17. Also included in land donations to Oak Hall Plantation, but not included in the purchase offer, are four acres already owned by the Pyes to be used for the cultivation of sweet grass, a type of straw used for making baskets by Lowcountry artisans in the tradition of their African ancestors.
A week after refusing the Pyes' offer, Charleston County Council withdrew its application for the permits needed to build the dirt mine. At first blush that would appear to be a step in the right direction. But Charleston County is not giving up on its plan to bury incinerator ash on the Sheppard Tract.
Nor is it going to revise its plans for the ash landfill complex in a way that would allow it to jettison the need for the pit required for the dirt mine.
You can expect Charleston County Council to renew its permit applications and try a little harder the second time around to meet the permitting requirements of state law as well as one of its own ordinances that prohibits development of historically and archaeologically significant land.

© Copyright by POINT, 1996
Last modified 4/6/96