Looks can deceive in slave cemeteries


Fresh breaks from a broken tablet are recovered from a black grave in Charleston.

"The differences between white and black graveyards often result in serious damage, loss or legal entanglements," said Chicora Foundation Executive Director Mike Trinkley. Some of these differences can be traced to different religious beliefs, while some are by-products of one group being enslaved by another.
"The location of African-American graveyards in marginal areas, for example, was probably the result of blacks being enslaved," Trinkley said. "Not only did owners not want to lose valuable land to slaves, but controlling even where the dead might be buried was yet another example of the power plantation owners had over their slaves."
In black cemeteries there are no neat, tidy rows of graves as are commonly seen in white graveyards, Trinkley said, adding that grave placement appears to be somewhat random.
Stone markers and monuments were rarely used in black cemeteries; instead, graves were marked by daffodils, jonquils and dwarf palmetto trees or with temporary markers made from wood or other transient materials, suggesting that it wasn't particularly important for future generations to know the location of specific graves.
"In fact, the use of temporary markers helps, in its own way, to ensure that the cemetery is always available to those who want to be buried with their kin," Trinkley said. "As one modern black man explained, There is always room for one more person.' This, of course, sounds impossible to many whites, who see cemeteries in terms of a finite number of square feet. But this is simply not how African-Americans have traditionally viewed graveyards."
According to Trinkley, whites tend to idealize death and landscape their cemeteries in ways that look as if the intention is to create heaven on Earth. "African-American cemeteries have grave depressions and mounded graves," Trinkley said. "There is no attempt to make grass grow over the graves or create special vegetation. Trees, typically, are neither encouraged nor discouraged. Cemeteries appear to be neglected or even abandoned in contrast to the neat, tidy rows of a white cemetery."
However abandoned King Cemetery may look to whites, Trinkley said such cemeteries are often well-known to rural African-American communities.
"Where traditional historical and documentary sources fail to provide information, often oral history can provide impressive details on the size, number of individuals buried, general locations of different family plots, and old fence lines," Trinkley said. "Too often, however, these local sources are not sought out."
In an effort to preserve some of that information, the Chicora Foundation published Grave Matters: The Preservation of African American Cemeteries, which was distributed to schools across South Carolina in February.
"African-American cemeteries are a unique resource," Trinkley said. "They not only represent the last resting place of black Americans, but are also storehouses of African-American history. The graveyards and the grave decorations offer an unusual glimpse of a part of history which is rapidly disappearing."
If you know of a cemetery that is about to be damaged or destroyed, please contact the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology at 803-777-8170. The Chicora Foundation can be reached at 803-787-6910.

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