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