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Unmarked graves of the enslaved: Clemson board committee to assess its buried history

The difficult work of figuring out how to manage the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at Clemson University's Woodland Cemetery has begun.

The cemetery established in 1924 provides burial plots free of charge to university trustees, presidents and longtime employees. But also buried on the wooded slopes near Memorial Stadium, called Cemetery Hill by locals, are the remains of 19th Century Black slaves and post-Civil War imprisoned laborers who died while building the university a century ago. To date, researchers have identified at least 215 unmarked graves.

On Sept. 11, Clemson University Board Chairman Smyth McKissick created an ad hoc committee headed up by fellow trustee David Dukes to come up with a strategy going forward on how to handle the remains. The board, which has direct control over the cemetery and sets policy for who may be buried there, has committed to working with university researchers and the Clemson-area Black community to help identify who might be buried there.

"For those of you with families at Woodland, and I know that some of you are viewing this today, both historic and modern burials please know that our commitment to dignity and respect applies to everyone buried at the cemetery," Dukes said.

The discovery of the historic Black graves was announced in mid-August when a team led by African American literature professor Rhondda Thomas and university historian Paul Anderson revealed their findings from ground-penetrating radar scans of the grounds of Woodland Cemetery. At the time, Thomas observed that before desegregation, Black deaths mattered less than Black lives

Clemson University Woodland Cemetery map September 2020

This map provided by Clemson University's Woodland Cemetery Historic Preservation project in September 2020 shows in red the location of more than 200 unmarked graves in the graveyard next to Memorial Stadium.

Working together with students and other researchers, both in the cemetery and through document research, Thomas and Anderson already knew that dozens, perhaps hundreds, of graves lay beyond in a 1-acre fenced area to the cemetery's south that the university had set aside in 1960 for unidentified remains. Field stones scattered in a three-acre area were, they knew, indicative of likely additional burial spots.

The radar data that proved their hunch — showing scores of remains lay among modern grave sites, some of them already containing modern remains — has stunned the Clemson community and trustees.

"As we learn more about the history of Woodland Cemetery and particularly the unmarked graves of African American enslaved persons, laborers and possibly others, it's clear that we need to do more," McKissick said. "We need to do better."

Thomas and Anderson have established a "Woodland Cemetery Historic Preservation" website where the public can monitor their work and their progress.

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On it are maps of the radar results that show scores of unmarked graves, shown as circles, among the modern grave sites, shown as squares.

Clemson University Board Chairman Smyth McKissick addresses the woodland Cemetery Ad Hoc Advisory Trustee Task Force on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020

Clemson University Board Chairman Smyth McKissick addresses the Woodland Cemetery Ad Hoc Advisory Trustee Task Force on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020, via video conference. "It's clear we need to do more, we need to do better," McKissick said.

On Sept. 11, McKissick spoke to members of the ad hoc committee of trustees and the public via video conference. Four area media organizations tuned into the online meeting. So did a number of people with relatives buried at Woodland Cemetery.

The Post and Courier asked a Clemson spokeswoman how many people were watching the meeting, but did not receive an answer.

McKissick and Dukes said they have visited with leaders in the Clemson-area Black community, many of whom are descendants of the slaves who lived and were forced to work on Fort Hill Plantation. Influential South Carolina statesman John C. Calhoun established the plantation and moved his family there in 1837. Thomas Green Clemson inherited Fort Hill through his wife, Calhoun's daughter Anna, and Clemson donated the grounds for the establishment of Clemson University after his death in 1888. Calhoun's historic plantation manor, still dubbed Fort Hill, stands at the center of Clemson's campus.

"Above all we must be accurate," McKissick said. "We must tell the truth of what has happened."

Clemson Calhoun cemetery plaque

A plaque at the entrance of Clemson University's Woodland Cemetery marks the history of indentured Black laborers buried in unmarked graves.

Dukes said the process of ascertaining the truth and acting on it would not be slow, but he said the process would also not conclude overnight.

"This is a project that will take time, and we will be driven by the same values that our professors apply to their research," Dukes said.

The public meeting on Sept. 11 to establish the task force lasted 10 minutes before the group adjourned to go into executive session. Topics for the closed-door meeting were security for Woodland Cemetery and attorney-client privileged legal advice.

The Woodland Cemetery ad hoc committee plans to meet monthly. A "legacy council," whose members include former Clemson President Jim Barker and former trustee James Bostic, Clemson's first Black doctorate recipient, is coordinating engagement with the community, McKissick said, and is meeting regularly as well. 

Follow Anna B. Mitchell on Twitter at @AnnaBard2U.

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