A World Apart: A Ramble Through North Charleston’s Burial Society Cemeteries, Part II

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my stroll through Morris Brown AME Church Cemetery in North Charleston. It’s just one of several cemeteries located in that area, from African-American to Jewish to Lutheran.

Today, I’m going to try to solve a few mysteries. One is how two white sea captains from Europe ended up in an African-American cemetery in the 1890s, when blacks and whites were rarely buried in the same place.

How did a white sea captain end up buried in a black cemetery?

How did a two white sea captains end up buried in a black cemetery?

Burt first, I have a confession to make. When I started my series on North Charleston’s burial society cemeteries, I didn’t do my homework as thoroughly as I usually do. The story behind these burial grounds is more complex than I’d imagined. Today I hope to make up for that.

A very helpful document enabled me to connect some dots about this area. The 2014 master’s thesis of Timothy John Hyder for the University of South Carolina is helping answer some questions I’ve had. I’ve embedded a link to it above so you can read it for yourself.

Much of the land Magnolia Cemetery (and many of the surrounding ones) sits on used to be a huge rice plantation owned by William Cunnington. His house still stands in Charleston’s historic district. The plantation was called Magnolia Umbra, which explains where the cemetery got its name. Magnolia Cemetery, a whites-only cemetery, was established in 1850 with the adjacent St. Lawrence Cemetery (Catholic) opening in 1854.

The others that sprang up around it over time total a jaw-dropping 23 different cemeteries. Mind you, some are very small and a few are owned by the same church, but that’s a big number nonetheless. Hyder refers to this area as the Magnolia Umbra Cemetery District (MUCD). His map can give you a better idea of what I’m talking about.

This map by T.J. Hyder shows the layout of North Charleston's 23 different cemeteries.

This map by T.J. Hyder shows the layout of North Charleston’s 23 cemeteries. The older Morris Brown AME Church Cemetery (which I wrote about last week) is #16. Photo source: T.J. Hyder, (2014). “Charleston’s Magnolia Umbra Cemetery District: A Necrogeographic History.” (Master’s thesis)

Magnolia (#1) is located in the top right corner of the map and is the largest cemetery of the group. St. Lawrence Catholic Cemetery (#2) is below it. Bethany Lutheran Cemetery (#4) is in the bottom left. These three were whites-only cemeteries when they began. As you can see, the tightly packed group of cemeteries in the top left corner of the map is a patchwork quilt of lots that blend from one to another in many places.

Thanks to Hyder’s thesis and a 2010 paper by Clemson University student Kimberly Martin, I got a better idea of how these institutions worked. In 1856, according to Hayden, five black burial societies purchased cemetery lands in what was the greatest single yearly expansion of the MUCD by number of cemeteries.

The first black burial society cemetery is thought to have come from the Brown Fellowship Society. Founded in 1790 by freed male black males (often referred to as Free People of Color or FPC because they were not slaves) of the St. Philip’s Episcopal Church congregation, Brown Fellowship takes its name not from the name of a founder but from the fact that membership would only be granted to a man with light skin and straight hair.

With property bought in 1956, Brown Fellowship Society moved several monuments from its original cemetery on Pitt Street.

With property bought in 1956, Brown Fellowship Society moved several monuments from its original cemetery on Pitt Street.

Hyder points out that Brown Fellowship Society restricted membership to the elite of Charleston’s FPC, men with such a light complexion that they could go into business, educate themselves, and even own slaves without upsetting the strict racial hierarchy of the times. Membership was limited to only 50 members in the beginning and women were not allowed to join. These rules softened only many decades later.

As the most elite of the societies, Brown also offered the most benefits to its members. These included a stipend for widows, health insurance, education for orphans, a credit union, burial insurance and even pallbearers for funerals.

Richard Holloway was not only a member of the elite FPC society, but also owned slaves. At the time of his death in 1843, he is believed to have accumulated at least 20 houses. Another member, hotel owner Jehu Jones, was well known in Charleston.

A wealthy Free Person of Color, Richard Holloway moved in the highest circles of black society in Charleston. Photo source: Digital collection of the College of Charleston.

A wealthy Free Person of Color, Richard Holloway moved in the highest circles of black society in Charleston. Photo source: Digital collection of the College of Charleston.

Brown Fellowship’s original cemetery was located on Pitt Street until 1956 when the land was sold to Bishop England High School under the condition that all remains and monuments be moved to the new MUCD property. While several monuments were moved, it’s unclear if the remains (if any) were actually removed from the Pitt Street property to the MUVD property.

I spent more time at Friendly Union Society Cemetery. It has more monuments and is next door to Brown Fellowship Cemetery. Established in 1813, Friendly Union offered health insurance, stipends to widows, burial insurance and a grave digger’s services when the member died. They purchased the land for their cemetery in 1856.

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Established in 1813, the Friendly Union Society purchased the land for their cemetery in 1856.

Walking through Friendly Union, the funerary styles and motifs are indistinguishable from those of a white cemetery. The intention behind this, Hyder asserts, is that the black elite hoped to gain the respect of their white counterparts by imitating their monuments.

One of Friendly Union’s most prominent members was Dr. William D. Crum, son of a white father and a free black mother, who attended medical school in the North. In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Dr. Crum collector of customs in Charleston, a post that gave him authority over white men.

Protests erupted at once. When William Taft became president in 1909, he refused to re-appoint Crum as collector of customs but instead made Crum consul general to Liberia, a position traditionally given to a black politician.

Dr. William Crum, appointed U.S. Minister to Liberia, had always been interested in infectious diseases and treated some of his colleagues for "African fever." In September 1912, Dr. Crum himself contracted African fever and returned to the U.S. and died in Charleston soon after.

Dr. William Crum, appointed U.S. Consul General to Liberia by President Taft, moved to Monrovia with his wife in 1909. In September 1912, Dr. Crum contracted “African fever” and returned to Charleston for treatment, where he died soon after.

One of the first monuments I came across at Friendly Union was for Captain John A. Peterson (one of the white sea captains whom I mentioned earlier). Peterson arrived in Charleston from Sweden around 1847 and died in 1892. This bit of information sent me diving into Peterson’s background.

From census records, I learned that Peterson came to Charleston at around the age of 21. He did well as a mariner, living on America Street for most of his life. America Street was then a melting pot of FPC and middle-class European immigrants new to the country. He became a fully naturalized citizen in 1871.

When Capt. John Peterson formally married Henrietta Johnson in 1879, they already had a 15-year-old daughter named Mary.

When Capt. John Peterson formally married Henrietta (or Harriett) Johnson in 1879, they already had a 14-year-old daughter named Mary.

According to the 1870 Census, Peterson was married to Henrietta Johnson, a mulatto (mixed race) woman native to South Carolina, and they had three two children. Records indicate the family employed a servant as well.

However, records also indicate that John (who was 51 at the time) did not actually marry Henrietta (listed as Harriett on the form) until January 1879, when she was 31. On their marriage certificate, he is listed as “white” and she is listed as “brown”, not “black” or “mulatto”. Their oldest daughter, Mary, was 14 by this time. They had several other children as well.

Unlike other states, South Carolina did not prohibit interracial marriage until after the Civil War. In Charleston, marriages did on occasion take place between FPC and well-regarded whites. The state suspended the prohibition in 1868, only to re-enact it in 1879. I’m not sure why John and Henrietta chose to wait to marry until right before the re-enactment of the prohibition.

John Peterson died at the age of 68 in 1894. Henrietta died of kidney failure in 1911 at the age of 64.

Captain John Peterson married Harriett Johnson in January 1879.

Captain John Peterson married Henrietta “Harriett” Johnson in January 1879. Ellen Carison is listed as a witness. She may have been Henrietta’s mother, who is listed as Ellen Kenison (who was living with the Petersons) on the 1870 Census.

One of the wedding witnesses, Captain Henry Prince, also has his name on the Peterson monument. He is listed as a boarder in the Peterson home on the 1880 Census. A native of the Isle of Wight off the coast of the U.K., Prince was also a white sea captain. He was born in 1814 and arrived in Charleston around 1830. He is listed on the 1880 Census as a boarding with John and Henrietta Peterson. He died of “senility” in 1892 at the age of 79.

Two mysteries still remain. On the other side of the monument are the names of Harold Peterson (who lived only a year) and Ermine (who lived to 15). Both were born after John Peterson’s death. I have no idea how they are related to him unless they were grandchildren.

The other mystery I have yet to fully unravel is that of Jesse Grant, whose name is also inscribed on the monument, beneath the name of Henry Prince. Listed as black or mulatto on some census records, he appears on the 1910 Census (living on America Street) as white and his mother-in-law (also listed as white) is none other than Henrietta Peterson.

I can only surmise that because of John Peterson’s connection to the FPC community via Henrietta, she was able to secure a burial plot for her him through the Friendly Union Society. Henry Prince’s connection must have also secured him a plot. How this all came to pass (including Jesse Grant) is still shrouded in mystery but I’d love to find out more some day.

I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface of this place and its little-known history, but I’ll be back with a final installment next week.

In the foreground is the monument for Timothy Weston, who died at the age of 45. His father, whose monument is in the background, was the Rev. Samuel Weston, a prominent African Methodist Episcopal minister.

In the foreground is the monument for Timothy Weston, who died at the age of 45. His father, whose monument is in the background, was the Rev. Samuel Weston, a Charleston tailor and prominent African Methodist Episcopal minister.

A World Apart: A Ramble Through North Charleston’s Burial Society Cemeteries, Part I

Any good cemetery hopper has an affection for Charleston, S.C. and I’m no exception. In fact, the banner photo at the top of the page is of a Charleston cemetery (my husband gets the credit for that one!). You can’t walk a mile in the historic district without finding yet another one to explore.

When most people think of Charleston cemeteries, this image from the Circular Congregational Church is what comes to mind.

When most people think of Charleston cemeteries, this image from the Circular Congregational Church is what comes to mind.

If you were only able to visit Charleston for a day, these are the cemeteries I would send you to see. Against a romantic backdrop of Spanish moss-laden trees, the variety of funerary styles and historic elements at play are hard to top. It’s a cemetery hopper’s paradise.

North Charleston doesn’t get the same attention because it doesn’t fit the mold of what the colorful brochures feature. It’s a gritty, run down part of town that includes a lot of port traffic, warehouses and industrial facilities. The crime rate is also considerably higher.

One of Charleston’s brightest gems, Magnolia Cemetery, is located in North Charleston. I’ve written about it once before and it deserves more attention than I gave it in that post. There’s a Lutheran cemetery, a small Greek one and a few Jewish ones as well.

But the majority of cemeteries in North Charleston are crammed in next to each other with boundary lines difficult to find. These are unique cemeteries because they represent the hopes and dreams of newly freed slaves and their descendants. These are cemeteries of the African-American burial societies of Charleston.

The streets around this part of North Charleston are often dumping grounds for trash and in this case, a dead television.

The streets around this part of North Charleston are often dumping grounds for trash and in this case, a dead television.

The Avery Research Center for African-American History and Culture has identified nine African-American burial societies in Charleston. According to a 2010 article, eight are still functioning in some capacity. While burial societies once existed in other cities (New Orleans and Baltimore), Charleston is most likely the only place where the old organizations remain somewhat active. At the same time, those still tending these cemeteries are now elderly and are concerned about who will take their place in that role.

Before emancipation in 1865, many blacks attended historic Charleston parishes. They would sit in the church loft or in the pews at the rear of the sanctuary, but they would worship with whites. However, they were not allowed to be buried with whites in the churchyards.

Charleston’s established whites encouraged freed blacks to form benevolent societies so they might collect dues and purchase land for cemeteries. Many did just that. Those that paid their dues not only had a reserved spot in one of these cemeteries but some received benefits like financial aid for their children’s education or a small pension in their old age.

The maze of plots and graves is not easy to figure out in terms of where one begins and one ends.

The maze of plots and graves is not easy to figure out in terms of where one burial society’s cemetery begins and ends. Some are well maintained, others not so much. Morris Brown AME Church Cemetery had been recently mowed.

In May, I enjoyed a few days of rest at nearby Folly Beach with my son, in-laws, and other relatives. But I wanted to return to North Charleston to explore these little-known cemeteries, to get an idea of what these were like. Tucked behind a huge Pepsi bottling plant is a different world few ever see.

The Morris Brown AME Cemetery sign had seen better days.

The Morris Brown AME Church Cemetery sign had seen better days.

While walking through what I later discovered was Morris Brown African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church Cemetery, I came across a plate of freshly-baked cake placed on the ground with a little clump of flowers. Because it wasn’t yet covered in insects or looked moldy, I think it had been placed there quite recently.

I wasn't expecting to see fresh cake in a cemetery.

I wasn’t expecting to see fresh cake in a cemetery.

When I posted this photo on Facebook, I got a flurry of comments from people who believed it was someone leaving an offering to the dead and possibly voodoo related. I was also sternly warned not to touch it or I would be “messing with the dark arts” (as one person put it). It’s always been my policy to leave any cemetery I visit just as I found it (unless I’m brushing leaves/weeds/mud off a marker) so I did nothing beyond photographing the cake.

Born in 1770, Rev. Morris Brown (for whom Atlanta’s Morris Brown College was named in 1885) was the son of Charleston freed blacks (a tiny fraction of the city’s population). A prosperous shoemaker and charismatic minister, Rev. Brown helped found the first AME Church in Philadelphia, Pa. and later started Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Sadly, Emanuel AME Church is now known by most as the site of the tragic 2015 shooting of nine church members.

Morris Brown AME Church was the sight of a memorial service for the nine Emanuel AME Church members shot on June 17, 2015 by Dylan Roof.

Morris Brown AME Church was the sight of a memorial service for the nine Emanuel AME Church members shot on June 17, 2015 by Dylan Roof. Photo source: David Goldman/AP Photo.

In 1822, Rev. Brown and Emanuel AME were investigated during the Denmark Vesey controversy (a freed slave who organized a slave uprising in the city). Authorities arrested hundreds of alleged participants and a white mob burned Emanuel AME to the ground. While Rev. Brown was implicated, he was never convicted. Shortly after, Rev. Brown and his family left the south and settled in Philadelphia where he died in 1849.
Morris Brown AME Church began when Rev. Richard Harvey Cain (then pastor of Emanuel AME) purchased the property where the church now stands at 13 Morris Street from a Lutheran Congregation in 1867 and became the first pastor of the new congregation.

A number of veterans are buried at Morris Brown AME Church Cemetery. Thomas Nelson was one of them, serving in the 339th Service Battalion QMC (Quartermaster Corps), Company D, during World War I. Most of these units never saw action in Europe but remained stateside. Thomas Nelson’s draft card states he was a “carpenter and musician” and census records confirm that he was a carpenter. He died at the age of 36.

Thomas Nelson is one of several veterans buried at Morris Brown AME Church Cemetery.

Thomas Nelson is one of several veterans buried at Morris Brown AME Church Cemetery. On the other side of the wall behind it is a Jewish cemetery that is locked up tight.

Inches away is John Nelson, who served in the U.S. Navy. I don’t know if or how he might be related to Thomas but their proximity in the cemetery suggests they were related.

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It’s highly likely that Navy veteran John Nelson was related to Thomas Nelson, buried to his right.

I’m sure Thomas Nelson knew Alfred Roundtree, who is buried a few rows away. Roundtree also served in the 339th Service Battalion QMC, Company D. Only 44 at the time he died, Alfred had been at a VA hospital for several months.

Alfred Roundtree was married and held several jobs during is life, from porter to mill worker. He died in a VA hospital at the age of 44.

Alfred Roundtree was married and held several jobs during is life, from porter to mill worker. He died in a VA hospital at the age of 44.

One of the most interesting military graves I found that day were for Civil War veterans who served in the U.S. Colored Troops (or often U.S. Colored Infantry) in the last year of the conflict. Sergeant Thomas Wieland’s grave was too deep in the ground for me to see which unit he served in, but the style is exactly like the other two USCT markers I found elsewhere.

I could find out very little about Thomas Weiland, who appears once in the 1910 Census and a fewtimes in Charleston business directories.

I could find out very little about Thomas Weiland, who appears once in the 1910 Census and a few times in Charleston business directories.

Often when people think of African-Americans who fought for the Union during the Civil War, they think of the movie Glory and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. But more often, blacks were not able to join the Union cause until the waning months of the Civil War. At the same time, it was a thrill to see one of these USCT/USCI graves up close for the first time.

Unfortunately, a few of the graves were so overgrown that I couldn’t determine who was buried there.

The stone that goes with this grave has been overtaken by plant life or not longer exists.

The stone that goes with this grave has been overtaken by plant life or not longer exists.

Next week, I’ll explore some more of these burial society cemeteries. There are more surprises in store!

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