Cleanup sheds light on old burial societies

Volunteers with the Preservation Society of Charleston clear vegetation from the Lewis Christian Society cemetery along Pershing Street on Sunday morning.

The plot of land belonging to the Lewis Christian Society is not much different than the dozens of small African-American cemeteries that were created in and around Charleston more than 100 years ago.

Except for one thing: Hardly anyone is around to look after it anymore.

That’s why about two dozen volunteers braved a light rain Sunday morning to help the Preservation Society of Charleston clear brush and litter from the sacred ground at Skurvin and Pershing streets.

Society Director Evan Thompson says the last burial occurred in the Lewis cemetery about 20 years ago, but it’s hard to say how many people were buried there or how many tombstones survive.

About a half-hour’s worth of weed-whacking was needed simply to re-expose the street sign near the corner.

“Apparently, Lewis Christian is totally defunct,” he says. “There aren’t any members left.”

The society, also known as the Lewis Christian Union, got its charter on Sept. 12, 1879, to promote the spiritual life of its members as well as their care during sickness and their burial in death.

It purchased two lots outside the gates of Magnolia two months later to use as its graveyard.

For about four hours on Sunday, volunteers fended off prickly vines and mosquitoes to clear vegetation, discarded tires and other debris from a 30-foot-deep section along Pershing Street.

Stone markers belonging to Eliza J. Lewis, Carrier Rutledge, Marguerite Meyers Smalls, Edward N. Hazel, Leonard Meyers and Henry Lorenzo Wilson and more than a dozen others were re-exposed for the first time in years.

Thompson says Sunday’s cleanup will help raise awareness about the plight of burial society grounds across the peninsula.

There are at least eight other African-American burial societies, many of which face uncertain futures as their membership ages. Many other black funeral homes and churches also have small burial grounds that face similar maintenance challenges.

For preservationists, keeping these places tended is not simply a matter of aesthetics — it’s a step toward remembering those who are buried there.

For instance, Edward McPherson, a policeman and Lewis Christian Union founder, lived at 140 Line St. until he died in 1887 from typhoid fever.

“I think it’s important to kind of connect the people buried in these burial grounds to Charleston’s history and where they lived, giving them some dignity,” Thompson says. “Buried in these cemeteries are some of the important African-Americans in the city’s history.”

While the Lewis Christian Society’s cemetery is largely overgrown, some families have returned to clear out their ancestors’ burial spaces.

Rebecca Braxton joined the Preservation Society volunteers to work where her grandparents, Willis and Rebecca Johnson, are buried. It was one of the few plots devoid of tall saplings and vines, and she could see the other volunteers clearing out the thicker growth in the distance.

She says she hopes the cleanup will help rally descendants to organize and arrange a plan to keep the Lewis Christian site tended in future years.

Thompson says the Preservation Society soon will arrange for a new wave of volunteers to return and complete the initial clearing.

These burial societies were created based on the notion that many people should pitch in to look after a few in their time of need, so it’s only fitting that a new generation is beginning to pitch in to preserve their memory.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.