GREENVILLE, SC – They were buried over 100 years ago, their bodies resting on a steep hill with no headstones. But these eternal resting places have been mostly forgotten.
Clemson University is working to find exactly who is buried in 604 unmarked graves – which undoubtedly belong to slaves, domestic workers, sharecroppers and convicts who lived, worked and died on university grounds in the 1800s – found in the Woodland on campus. Graveyard.
The discovery sparked a long-standing, but not often discussed, truth about land that once served as plantations, according to the site’s principal investigator.
“Long before a college or college community, this place was an African-American community,” said academic historian Paul Anderson.
Now that the bulk of the surveying is done, the university is working to find out who these people were, why they were forgotten, and how Clemson can honor them, 100 years later.
Burial sites triple with radar search
Using ground-penetrating radar, the university initially found 200 graves on the western and southern slopes of the cemetery, which sits in the shadow of Memorial Stadium, home to the collegiate football team n ° 1 of the university.
But after inspecting the entire property, researchers found 604 unmarked graves, believed to be over 200 years old.
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Burial sites dot every hill in the cemetery, equal in number to known burial sites, most of which were dug after 1920 when Woodland became the graveyard for Clemson administrators, presidents and professors, according to the university.
The sheer volume of unmarked graves makes sense in the time period it was likely in use, said former Clemson administrator Jim Bostic, who has worked with researchers since the project began.
“Until 1924, it was an African-American cemetery,” Bostic said.
Records reveal that at least 70 people died within months after whooping cough and measles swept through Fort Hill in 1865, Bostic said, and the discovery of graves atop the hill could mean slaves were there. buried in 1810.
“So if you look at a cemetery that could have been in use as early as this time (1810) and then extended its use for another century, the notion of 600 graves somehow becomes more manageable,” Anderson said.
Atop the steep hill in Woodland are the graves of members of the Calhoun family, who founded Fort Hill Plantation under John C. Calhoun before land was given to the state to become Clemson University.
Twelve unmarked graves were found in the Calhoun family’s land, which is enclosed in a wrought iron fence atop Woodland, which is built on a hill.
The presence of the graves has led researchers to believe that slaves were buried there primarily Calhoun, based on historical knowledge of African-American cemeteries.
“It’s a traditional African-American cemetery in the sense that it’s on a high point, it’s on a hill, it’s in a wooded area. And also at the time, the site would have overlooked water. “Anderson said.
Before Hartwell Lake was created in the mid-20th century, the Seneca River ran through the Clemson campus, near where Memorial Stadium and Perimeter Road are today.
Prior to John C. Calhoun, Reverend James McElhaney owned the plantation and had at least 25 slaves on the land that is now Clemson University, according to Anderson. The unmarked graves, if they belonged to slaves who were on the land before Fort Hill, would have been on the McElhaney plantation.
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Clemson’s other plantation offers clues
Less than a mile away, on the shores of Lake Hartwell, Hopewell Plantation offered clues to Woodland researchers.
Using ground-penetrating radar at Hopewell – the plantation founded by American revolutionary Andrew Pickens after fighting Native Americans in the 1700s – researchers were able to compare samples with those in Woodland to determine the burial sites found were from the time when the alleged slaves were buried, according to Anderson.
The two plantations on the Clemson campus – with hundreds of slave graves encrusted in the soft earth around them – were close enough when operational to have had a relationship, Anderson said.
“It is close enough, from a community perspective, to suspect that family or extended family might be buried in one place or another,” he said.
Details of the lives of African Americans who lived at Fort Hill, and possibly even Hopewell, have yet to be fully uncovered.
Now that the survey work is nearly done, Anderson and a research assistant will begin to dig through the records and census data to find out who was buried in Woodland and when.
Dr Rhondda Thomas, the Calhoun Lemon history professor at Clemson, works with surrounding communities to review family histories to see if living descendants can be linked to Woodland ancestors.
When the two researchers held open houses last weekend, more than 120 people showed up, including two local families who believe they have ancestors buried in Woodland, Anderson said.
Although the work could take months or even years longer, Anderson said the university had the opportunity to tell a “multi-faceted story” about the people who lived and worked the lands surrounding Woodland, from the Cherokees who colonized the land centuries ago, to settlers. who took it over, to the slaves who worked it and to the students who live there today.
“Clemson is uniquely positioned to tell a story that embraces multiple perspectives, spanning different eras, in a way that we’ve just really explored and discovered … it won’t be the old way of talking about the history … it’s far richer than that. “
Bostic said that as the project “gets bigger and bigger,” the memorial to those unmarked graves will also have to get bigger. Especially since the university has not treated these burials with care in the past, even though historical records indicate that the rulers were aware of their existence.
“There are 89 people buried under the road… that someone has paved,” Bostic said.
A 1960 court order granted the university permission to move the remains from “Cemetery Hill,” but researchers are not yet sure if and why the remains were moved, according to the university.
Even with many unanswered questions, Bostic said the project has grown bigger than he initially imagined.
“And now, instead of having a small monument, we have to create something much bigger, which honors the whole cemetery,” Bostic said.
Follow Zoe Nicholson on Twitter: @zoenicholson_