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City stops work at 88 Smith St., site of two graveyards, because of lack of permits

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Gary Pope, field inspections supervisor with the city of Charleston (right), stands with the owner of 88 Smith St. after delivering a stop-work order on July 6, 2021. Lauren Petracca/Staff

A private home at 88 Smith St., located on the site of two old Black burial grounds, is the focus of renewed city scrutiny after a stop-work order was issued July 6.

The order was quickly issued after city officials determined that the owner had failed to secure permits for remodeling work.

Steve Tsafos purchased the property for $600,000 on behalf of his daughter Alyssa Tsafos in March, records show. Since then, he has been making improvements.

The area, just south of Calhoun Street, is the site of two African American cemeteries: Ephrath and Trinity. The former, which contains the remains of nearly 2,000 people, extends from Calhoun Street through what is now the backyard of 88 Smith St.

Trinity is the resting place of around 1,600 people, beneath the home at 88 Smith St., which was built in 1935, and its immediate perimeter.

Together, these two Black cemeteries contain the remains of more than 3,600 people — more than half of which likely are buried on the 88 Smith St. property, according to research conducted by Grant Mishoe of The Gullah Society.

The evidence is abundant. The backyard of the home contains dozens of visible gravestones, some of which have been removed for safekeeping in recent weeks by Mishoe, with help from Grant Gilmore of the College of Charleston.

On April 16, Ram Jack Foundation Repair applied for a permit from the city of Charleston to “install 16 helical piles for foundation repair,” according to the city’s building inspections division. The permit was issued on April 22.

The work required driving piles into the ground, and this could have disturbed existing graves nearby, Mishoe said.

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A stop-work order was placed on the door of a home at 88 Smith St. in Charleston on July 6, 2021. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Field Inspections Supervisor Gary Pope met with Tsafos on the site and walked through the property, according to the city's building inspections division. The home was in the midst of extensive renovations that included complete rewiring, installation of a new HVAC system, plumbing repairs, roof repairs, brickwork, window replacement and refinishing. Interior walls in the basement had been demolished.

Pope advised the owner “that permits need to be acquired along with approvals from BAR/Zoning” before work could resume.

According to South Carolina law, it’s a felony to knowingly destroy, damage, vandalize, desecrate or remove human remains without legal authority. Punishment consists of a fine up to $5,000, imprisonment up to 10 years or both. It’s also a felony to steal from a known burial ground, which can result in a fine up to $5,000, not more than five years in jail and up to 500 hours of community service.

Mishoe said The Gullah Society had been interested in purchasing 88 Smith St. both to preserve the graveyards and to use the building as the organization’s administrative headquarters. It was in the process of raising money, finding guarantors and preparing an offer of $635,000 when the group received word in March that the property had been sold to Tsafos.


A worker finishes up work on the exterior of 88 Smith St. after the owner received a stop-work order from the city of Charleston on July 6, 2021. Lauren Petracca/Staff

About three weeks later, Mishoe visited Tsafos at the property and shared all the information he had concerning the burial grounds. Mishoe also arranged to remove some of the stones at that time, he said.

A voice message left for Tsafos on July 6 went unanswered.

Tsafos told a Post and Courier photographer at the scene that his intentions were good — he only wanted to improve the condition of the property — and that media coverage was making it harder for him to enjoy his new home.

It is uncertain whether the property broker, Beach Residential, fully disclosed the status of 88 Smith St. to its buyer. Messages left on July 6 for the real estate agent involved in past transactions involving the property went unanswered.

City and county officials can regulate how renovations and repairs are conducted, and how new construction projects are permitted. They also can intervene to protect and preserve historic burial grounds or regulate grave removals. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has jurisdiction when a cemetery is located on public property or when DHEC permitting is required.

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Chris Stewart (from left), Steven Tsafos, Grant Mishoe and LaSheia Oubre discuss one of the gravestones recovered during the excavation from a yard in Harleston Village on June 18, 2021. Matthew Fortner/Staff

But it is not always clear when DHEC can, or should, intervene. It did so in early May when Christopher Stout, manager of DHEC’s Coastal Zone Consistency Section, ordered Crescent Homes’ Land Development Director Robert Pickard to stop work on privately owned land in Cainhoy’s Oak Bluff subdivision, citing “concerns about potential additional graves not being accounted for.”

In that case, a Black burial ground nestled in the trees on a bluff was threatened by imminent construction. DHEC required the developer to arrange for a new archaeological survey.

Whether DHEC can mediate a resolution at 88 Smith St. remains to be seen. An agency spokeswoman said DHEC does not always have jurisdiction over abandoned gravesites or cemeteries on private property. The S.C. Code of Laws states that counties and municipalities can decide whether to remove graves. The city has not contemplated removing the graves at 88 Smith St., nor has it received any request to do so.

Contact Adam Parker at

Adam Parker has covered many beats and topics for The Post and Courier, including race and history, religion, and the arts. He is the author of "Outside Agitator: The Civil Rights Struggle of Cleveland Sellers Jr.," published by Hub City Press.

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