While visiting her great-grandfather’s grave in rural Tennessee, Sandra Arnold was disturbed to learn that the cemetery also contained unmarked graves of slaves.
Challenges to identifying and preserving slave burial groundsCommunities often refer to older African American cemeteries as slave cemeteries, but enslaved people may not be buried in them.Most slaves were buried in graves that did not have headstones or permanent markers.Few plantation maps marked the locations of slave burial grounds.Former sprawling plantations have been divided into smaller plots of land over the years. Slave burial grounds that once were on plantations now may be a long way from the main house on land no longer remembered as being part of the plantation.Michael Trinkley, Chicora Foundation
Her great-grandfather, who was born a slave but died after emancipation, had a headstone on his grave, and his family always has been able to visit his final resting place.
To enter a site in the Burial Database Project of Enslaved African Americans, go to vanishinghistory.org.
But that wasn’t the case for the others buried in the cemetery on the former plantation. Nobody knew who they were, Arnold said. “It moves you.”
The experience launched Arnold, 50, into a decade-long investigation on slave burial grounds, and now her idea to create a national database. Now a senior at Fordham University in New York, she and a group of scholars and advisers have opened the Burial Database Project of Enslaved African Americans.
Anyone with information about burial grounds of people who spent at least part of their lives as slaves can enter it into the site for review.
It’s a simple online form, said Lynn Rainville, an anthropology professor at Sweet Briar College and one of Arnold’s advisers. Arnold will review the information submitted and use it to create the database, said Rainville, who has created a slave burial ground database for central Virginia.
Michael Trinkley, director of the Columbia-based Chicora Foundation, an archaeological and historic research and preservation organization, said such a resource will be useful, but identifying slave burial grounds isn’t easy. People often refer to older African-American cemeteries as slave cemeteries, but enslaved people may not be buried in them.
Slaves were buried without markers, he said, so their burial grounds “made very little permanent impact on the landscape.”
Trinkley said it’s impossible to say how many slave burial grounds there are in the Lowcountry. People think that because there were thousands of slaveholders, there must be thousands of slave cemeteries. That’s probably true, he said, but nobody knows for sure.
In the course of his research, he has looked at many maps of former plantations, he said. Only two or three of them marked the location of the “Negro burial ground.”
He also said that many small, rural, African-American cemeteries began as slave cemeteries. Family members then continued to use them after emancipation, he said.
Lisa Randle, director of research and education at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, said nobody has ever located a slave cemetery on the property, which began operating as a 2,000-acre plantation in 1680. The current site encompasses only 500 acres, she said.
Records simply don’t exist that indicate where the slaves were buried, she said. “We just don’t know.”
There is a historic African-American cemetery on the property for blacks who died after emancipation. It includes the graves of Adam Bennett and some of his family members. Bennett was a slave at Magnolia, then returned to work as the garden superintendent after the Civil War.
There is no local or regional database on slave burial grounds, but the Lowcountry Africana’s database contains the names of some people who were enslaved at Magnolia and Drayton Hall plantations.
Local author Herb Frazier included research on several forgotten African-American cemeteries around the Cainhoy peninsula in his book, “Behind God’s Back.” Slaves likely are buried in those cemeteries, he said.
Preserving and studying these burial grounds is important not only for people looking for their ancestors but also for historical information, Frazier said.
In downtown Charleston, the grave sites of prominent white Charlestonians are included in historical walking tours, he said. But the graves of the enslaved “hold the remains of people who are no less meaningful to the history of Charleston.”
They are the people who built Charleston, he said. “They were overlooked when they were living. They shouldn’t be overlooked now that they are dead.”
Arnold said she hopes her database eventually serves as a resource for historians and for people looking for their ancestors. “The heart of what we’re trying to do,” she said, “is to remember a whole population of people who deserve to be memorialized.”
Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.