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National database seeks to protect hundreds of black burial grounds in South Carolina

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SCANLONVILLE — When Edward Lee was a child, everybody in the neighborhood knew about the cemetery.

The graves rested beneath the moss-draped oaks that overlooked Molasses Creek, a body of water meant to allow for safe passage of spirits back to Africa.

Even while hunting nearby for turkey or deer, Lee said, there was one rule everyone followed: You don't hunt in the graveyard.

Today, a federal push is underway to keep the stories of African-American burial grounds like Scanlonville alive. Last month, U.S. Reps. Alma Adams of North Carolina and Donald McEachin of Virginia — two black Democrats from Southern states — introduced the African-American Burial Grounds Network Act.

The proposal calls for the creation of a national database of historic African-American burial grounds as part of the National Park Service. If passed, the legislation would provide federal funding for the voluntary initiatives that research, record and preserve such sites, along with technical support.

The database would be voluntary and require the consent of the property owner to be included in the network. It is unclear how much the undertaking would cost, as the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has yet to release its assessment.

Scanlonville's history would be of interest, something Lee alluded to while unhooking the 20-foot yellow chain that separates the cemetery from the Mount Pleasant regional neighborhood street where half-million-dollar homes surround the site. He recalled what an attorney told him after a judge ruled this cemetery could not be developed.

"This was very unusual that anybody would stand up and fight for this place," he said, looking out at the old gravestones, the new white crosses and the groups of palms that signify this is a final resting place.

No database of stories

Few know where to look for such sites and even fewer can find the solace they seek as African-American burial grounds face an onslaught of modern threats: physical deterioration, bitter development battles and neglect when descendants move away or die before they can warn the next generation.

"Black people are generally treated as though they are invisible, and the things that were visible have become invisible through gentrification and other means," said Ade Ofunniyin, founder of the Gullah Society, a nonprofit dedicated to rescuing and preserving neglected African and African-American burial grounds.

"The physical evidence of black people living in Charleston is disappearing quickly," he said. "All we have are these graves and the voices of those who remain. The stories need to be told."

No official national record or database currently exists for African-American burial ground locations. No centralized record of African-American burial grounds exists in South Carolina, either.

"I can't tell you how many people come up and ask me about this," said Jannie Harriot, vice chairwoman of the S.C. African American Heritage Commission.

The creation of a statewide database of African-American burial grounds is something Harriot said the commission will be discussing at its April meeting.

Harriot said she keeps hearing concerns from community members about the lack of records for abandoned burial grounds and cemeteries. Sometimes these sites are only discovered when construction projects inadvertently disturb the dead.

In Charleston, the remains of 36 anonymous people of African descent were uncovered in 2013 during construction of the Gaillard Center. They will be reburied in a small patch of ground near George and Anson streets this May.

Michael Trinkley is an archaeologist who has been working on heritage preservation projects nationwide for more than 35 years. His Columbia-based Chicora Foundation has been instrumental in the preservation and identification of African-American cemeteries, including Scanlonville.

Trinkley questions whether a nationwide database is the answer to breaking the cycle of forgotten history.

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A question of priorities

In 2013, the Chicora Foundation completed a years-long cemetery survey of Richland County that identified several hundred African-American burial sites.

"But my suspicion is there are several hundred more that we simply could not locate. Even doing archaeological studies, finding an African-American burial ground is exceedingly difficult," he said. "African-American burial grounds tend to be incredibly invisible. They are rarely included on deeds. They are rarely included in land records. The older they are, the less likely they are to be recorded in oral history. And it takes an incredible amount of effort and energy to identify them."

Trinkley estimated it cost more than $100,000 to create his countywide database of graves. He also noted North Carolina has had a cemetery database for years.

For those reasons, Trinkley wonders whether there is an appetite by society at-large to make cemetery preservation a priority and, more importantly, whether there will be robust funding behind it.

"This country has a variety of significant social issues. I'm not downplaying the importance of historic preservation, but it's very difficult to promote preserving the dead when we have so much trouble preserving the living," Trinkley said.

Grant Mishoe, who is The Gullah Society’s volunteer mapper of burial grounds, knows the struggle but said the database initiative could spur action among the living to honor the dead.

Last week, he led two genealogists and an architect into a neglected gravesite located off a dead-end street in Charleston's Neck Area.

A new opportunity

Unlike Scanlonville Cemetery, the cemetery at the end of Monrovia Street does not overlook a tranquil body of water. Instead, it rests next to the Interstate 26 overpass, where cars and 16-wheelers speed past and honk their horns.

Some of the headstones are damaged. The only other way of knowing people are buried here is by the plastic red flags that stick out of the ground, where archaeologists have determined there is a grave below.

Mishoe, who is white, said a white man in Charleston once asked him why he cared so much about a race of people to which he does not belong.

"Because these cemeteries never got their fair shake," Mishoe said. "Dead is dead, and skin color don't matter."

Mishoe said his research shows there are more than 110 cemeteries in the Charleston peninsula alone, 80 percent of which he said are likely African-American.

"And 100 percent of those 80 percent have been messed with, overgrown, neglected, or completely eradicated," Mishoe said. "If we don't protect these things, these developers will unscrupulously bulldoze on top of these things faster than you can say howdy doody."

Lee lived that fight. In 2000, he joined 10 members of the East Cooper Civic Club in filing a lawsuit when a developer wanted to move the Scanlonville graveyard to make way for a marsh-front house.

In the suit, they asserted that the graveyard had been consistently and regularly used since at least 1870 and that hundreds of individuals are buried therein. The judge sided with the Scanlonville residents, and the cemetery continues to be used to this day.

"Every time I go here and I come back to visit, I see more flowers. Like that one," Lee said, pointing to a white rose carefully placed at the base of a cluster of green palms. "I've never seen a flower at that palm before so somebody knows somebody who's buried there even though there's no name."

The federal bill to create a national database has been assigned to a House committee. There's no timetable on when it will advance.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

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