Race against time
Preservationists want to document plantation slave cemeteries before history is lost
By Prentiss Findlay
Eugene Frazier and Thomas Johnson surveyed a forest of graves at a hidden cemetery on James Island where they said more than 200 people are laid to rest. Most of the deceased are in unmarked graves. Many of them were Africans brought here as slaves, they said.
Frazier and Johnson have known about the graveyard for years. They told stories of how the property has changed hands over time. They talked about how they want to clean, document and preserve the final resting place of ancestors brought here in chains.
“This is not just unique to James Island. It is throughout the state really that you have this problem with burial sites,” Johnson said.
Johnson, founder of the Committee to Preserve African-American Cemeteries on James Island, said plantation slave cemeteries are as important as a history lesson. “I want my folks’ story to be told,” he said.
He smoked a cigarette as he pondered a few moldy tombstones worn smooth by time. The ground had a slight rise and fall in many places. Johnson said those “indentations” are unmarked graves.
“You almost have a feeling of connection. Your mind drifts back to what it must have been like. You can almost visualize what it must have been like,” he said.
Frazier is the author of “James Island, Stories From Slave Descendants,” published by The History Press. In his book, he identifies the location as the Old Slave Cemetery for Seabrook Plantation. The Seabrook family owned 195 slaves between 1850 and 1860, according to records that Frazier researched for his book. Prince White, a slave who was the plantation overseer, is thought to be buried in the plot, but there is no grave marker for him. There is a tombstone for his son, Prince Jr.
“It gives me a feeling that I’m standing on something holy,” Frazier said.
Johnson said the burial site is thought to date to the early 1800s. It is located in a patch of woods on Secessionville Road surrounded by neatly manicured suburban homes. Recently, SCE&G cleared a utility line right-of-way fronting the road. As a result, some of the remaining tombstones are visible from the road, and the spot has become a local curiosity.
James Island historian Doug Bostick said it wasn’t the cultural practice of the day to use tombstones to identify who was buried in a slave grave. Instead, graves were marked by something the deceased used in their last days or a favored object such as a shell. Bostick said there is a map of the area dating to the early 1800s that shows a cluster of small buildings presumed to be slave quarters next to the cemetery. The Seabrook Plantation was the largest on the island, he said.
In 1860, James Island had 21 plantations, so theoretically it also had that many African-American cemeteries. Bostick said he knows of only seven black cemeteries left on the island. “Lots of the slave cemeteries have simply been built on top of. You’ve got to figure we’ve lost 12 to 14 slave cemeteries,” he said.
Frazier and Johnson think they are in a race against time to map out the Seabrook Plantation cemetery before the collective memory of the community fades with the death of those who would know some of the history of unmarked graves. They have tried but failed to determine who owns the cemetery property to ask permission to clear it and do their historical work.
“The biggest thing is to preserve these sites to pay these individuals respect. That is our whole purpose. When you visit these sites, it’s an emotional thing,” Frazier said.
Source: The Post and Courier