Dig a spade into the ground of the Charleston peninsula and you are likely to hit something of historical value. The layers have been accumulating since 1680: the deeper you dig, the more you might find.
The discoveries sometimes are tiny. An old fire badge for example, or some pottery shards and bone fragments. Sometimes they are large, such as a part of the old city fortress wall, or a beef market beneath City Hall.
And sometimes they are the bones of the dead.
Burial grounds where the enslaved were laid to rest, often unceremoniously, once were located along Boundary Street — today Calhoun Street — from Ansonborough to the Ashley River marshes, according to The Gullah Society, which has a mission to identify, document and, whenever possible, preserve these sacred sites.
It has long been known, though forgotten by most, that two significant Black cemeteries are near Calhoun Street between Smith and Pitt streets. The Ephrath burial grounds, meant for Black members of the city's three Congregational Churches, lie beneath the asphalted parking lot behind Bethel United Methodist Church, according to city records.
The Trinity burial grounds, once managed by a church by the same name located in the Ansonborough neighborhood, is perpendicular to its neighboring cemetery, consisting of what today is 88 Smith St., and extending a little into the church’s parking lot beyond the property line, documents show.
Recent research conducted by The Gullah Society’s staff archaeologist Grant Mishoe has revealed some surprises, including the sheer number of people buried in these two cemeteries.
Ephrath’s size is about 240 by 100 feet, and can fit the remains of fewer than 800 people, assuming each plot were 8 by 4 feet and positioned close to one another. But records show the cemetery contains the remains of 1,954 people, suggesting that bodies were stacked on top of one another, Mishoe said.
Trinity’s size is about 100 by 80 feet and should fit the remains of around 250 people. Records show there are 1,653 people buried there.
Together, these two small Black cemeteries contain the remains of more than 3,600 people.
“You’d have to go back 100 years to discover the extent of the burial grounds,” Mishoe said, referring to the city of Charleston’s historical records. It’s unlikely that anyone today knows that so many people were interred in this area, he said.
Indeed, the 88 Smith St. property now is for sale, and it’s unclear how, or whether, the burial ground on which it sits will affect any transaction. Grave markers are scattered throughout its backyard, some used as paving stones.
Homeowners in South Carolina are required to disclose to potential buyers a host of information about the property, including its physical condition and attributes, any zoning impacts, land-use restrictions and “material adverse facts,” according to state law. Title searches typically extend back only about 50 years.
Ade Ofunniyin, founder and director of The Gullah Society, said he hopes to secure the property, perhaps for use as the organization’s interpretive center, and has been invited by the owner to submit a proposal. The cost, however, could be significant and require a major fundraising effort or financial sponsor or both, he added.
The people buried there ought to be properly memorialized, Ofunniyin said. “Some of the people in these cemeteries were significant people.”
They include once-prominent civic leaders, including city Alderman Samuel B. Garrett, numerous families, young children and a few who lived past 100 years. Several were enslaved people born in Africa. The oldest person buried there was over 120 years old, Mishoe and Ofunniyin said.
Preserve and protect
The city’s various Black burial grounds once were numerous and scattered throughout the Charleston peninsula, though they were concentrated along what was once the edge of the urban area. Many have been lost. The Gullah Society is trying to save what’s left.
Mishoe said the city should do more to limit building permits for construction on land known to contain human remains, or on land untested for the presence of graveyards.
Section 6-1-35 of South Carolina’s Code of Laws, titled “Preservation and protection of cemeteries,” states that “Counties and municipalities are authorized to preserve and protect any cemetery located within its jurisdiction which the county or municipality determines has been abandoned or is not being maintained.”
Jacob Lindsey, Charleston’s director of city planning, said anyone embarking on a building project on the peninsula should not be surprised to run across a burial site. And it’s true, he said, that the city in years past played a role in damaging or obscuring these old cemeteries.
Today, the city is far more engaged with this issue, he said.
"When we become aware of the possibility of human remains, we request further investigation," Lindsey said. The city asks contractors to stop work, seeks to obtain evidence of any burial ground on site and advises the property owner to contact the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, which has jurisdiction over any excavation, disinterment, DNA testing, identification and relocation.
So it makes sense, he said, to collaborate with The Gullah Society in some way.
Other cities do have a direct role in managing archaeological projects, but they typically have dedicated staff and a city-operated museum, all funded by tax dollars, Lindsey said. In Charleston, that would require setting up a new branch of government, which is not practical. Instead, city officials work with private and nonprofit historic preservation groups.
The burial grounds located near Bethel Methodist Church changed hands over the years. The land for Trinity cemetery was purchased in 1817, and sold in 1899 to Centenary Methodist Episcopal Church on Wentworth Street.
The land for Ephrath cemetery also was secured in 1817, by Black members of three Congregational churches. Its deed also changed hands over the course of that century, but the cemetery was still intact in 1902, according to the book “The Silence of the Dead: Giving Charleston Cemeteries a Voice” by Michael Trinkley, Debi Hacker and Nicole Southerland.
By 1866, they were both deemed full, and the city ordered them permanently closed, records show. But their proprietors continued to use the cemeteries. The last burial at Trinity was in 1871; the last at Ephrath was in 1932, Mishoe determined.
By 1944, Ephrath was partially obscured by the Bethel Methodist Church building.
Space at a premium
Eric Poplin, senior archaeologist with Brockington and Associates, oversaw a survey of the property using ground-penetrating radar in May 2019.
Though the results have not been formally evaluated, it was clear that the earth is full of objects large and small.
“There are anomalies, disturbances below the ground,” Poplin said. “There’s a lot of them, large masses of disturbances.” Over time, these anomalies change shape. None clearly reveal individual grave plots but, rather, overlapping and layered remains, he said. “Space becomes a premium. I’ve seen that in church yards here, where I’ve monitored new graves being excavated.”
In the vicinity of Ephrath and Trinity cemeteries are several others. Bethel Church had its own small cemetery for Blacks. Across Pitt Street, partly beneath the small parking lot of Addlestone Library, are the burial grounds of the Brown Fellowship Society (for light-skinned Blacks) and MacPhelah (for dark-skinned Blacks).
Another, the Strangers and Negro Burial Ground, once covered the block between Calhoun, Vanderhorst, St. Philip and Coming streets. Contained therein are remains not only of enslaved people, but of British soldiers.
In Ansonborough, St. Stephen’s Church maintained a Black burial ground. And in 2013, the remains of 36 Africans were discovered during renovation of the Gaillard Center.
Up and down the peninsula are at least 112 churchyards, burial grounds and cemeteries for Blacks and Whites, according to Mishoe’s count.
In 1841, the state Legislature passed “an act for the better regulation of the inhabitants of the Charleston Neck,” making it illegal to bury the dead between Boundary Street and Line Street.
In 1859, City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting any burials within city limits (except in Potter’s Field, the public burial ground on the West Side, and in churchyards and private sites). The same ordinance also required all new graves to be dug in new soil.
Soon after, churches, synagogues and burial societies secured land along Cunnington and Huguenin avenues, in the Neck area near Magnolia Cemetery.
Theodore Schurr, anthropology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a consultant to The Gullah Society, oversaw DNA testing of the remains discovered near the Gaillard Center. That testing of disinterred bones helped determine some basic information, such as the age and genetic background of those buried there, in the absence of any records.
In the case of Ephrath and Trinity, though, researchers have access to an array of documentation, including names of the dead. That allows some significant amount of genealogical excavation.
The people who were buried in these cemeteries are mostly lost to history, he noted.
“This will allow us to bring details of the past into the present, and find connections between those whose ancestors are buried in Charleston and descendants living farther away,” Schurr said. “So many stories may emerge from this research. It is rather remarkable that this is now possible through this work.”
Speaking of genealogy, Ofunniyin noted the central role Charleston plays in the African American experience. It was the gateway to North America for millions of enslaved Africans whose descendants scattered across the nation over the centuries.
“Millions of people across America have ancestors buried somewhere in Charleston,” he said. This is why it’s so important to preserve what’s left of these sites. “We live on a burial ground called Charleston, South Carolina.”