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Centuries worth of hidden secrets buried under Lowcountry buildings, parking lots and roads. You probably walk or drive by forgotten graveyards often, but you would never know because either something is built on top or the landscape has taken over the site.
All week News 2’s Ashley Osborne unearths some of Charleston’s forgotten cemeteries. She talked to researcher Grant Mishoe and archaeologist Jeremy Miller about how they uncover where the graves are located and who is buried there.
Grant Mishoe is a retired firefighter who has developed a passion for discovering who is buried in Charleston’s forgotten graves. He finds the information by digging through thousands upon thousands of death records, some dating back to before the Revolutionary War.
“This is just what I enjoy doing,” Mishoe says. “I go through these cemeteries and look, try to track down family members. If I see people that are happy and they’ve seen their family, because my family is near and dear to my heart, my genealogy–that makes me happy.”
Mishoe explains how these burial grounds get lost in time.
“Back in the early days there used to be these friendly societies or burial societies and people would pay into it to get buried, but the problem is, as the trustees get older and pass away, the kids have moved on, out of state, out of town, or don’t care or for whatever reason. Then what happens is this.” He points to the overgrown piece of land where people once buried their loved ones.
Jeremy Miller is an archaeologist with the Gullah Society. They have been working on African burial grounds for the last couple years and recently became a non-profit organization. He and others are in the process of mapping out where people are buried inside these African burial sites.
“Anytime archaeologists or architects even, go into a place, they want plans, a planned drawing or map of the location,” Miller explains. “What we’re trying to provide to clients and to the community is a map, some kind of tangible product or service that they can have where they can see the locations of individuals or their loved ones and be able to find them.”
Miller explains why the Gullah Society is working to restore these places of history.
“Part of visiting these African burial grounds is the experience…We’d like the descendants or the loved ones to be able to visit their loved ones. I think a lot of people take it for granted if any of the individuals even watching this have ancestors that are buried in Magnolia Cemetery, anybody can go and visit their ancestors freely. Here this isn’t as welcoming of an invitation.” He says as he points to an area where tomb stones are tucked back in the woods. “Something needs to be done. I think it’s part of the greater healing process for Charleston” says Miller.
Miller says that the archaeological and scientific community have been pushing for an archaeological ordinance in the City of Charleston for years. They would like an ordinance to require official research done to uncover any traces of history before something is built on top.
“This speaks to some of the greater issues in Charleston right now,” says Miller, “particularly with the development, and so as many of us know, there is a push for an archaeological ordinance here…and with all this development, we’re going to have to push for some kind of regulation because sites like these are getting lost and history is getting lost with it.”
The first burial site they brought us to is across the street from the new fire department on Heriot Street, which is a side road off upper King Street.
There is an undeveloped area about one-quarter acre in size with roughly 20 visible headstones in it. Mishoe says between 900-1300 people are buried there and sprawling out underneath the buildings in the area. Mishoe’s research shows that no one owns the quarter acre. There are no records for it so in theory, it is just a blank space on the map.
Next, they took us one street up to Monrovia Street. Miller explained that there are 4 burial sites in this area across the street from the new Pacific Box and Crate. The head stones start next to an old meeting building and they run through the woods up to I-26. There are headstones resting on the walls of the interstate. Miller says, there is a high probability that there are also graves underneath the I-26.
Third, we went to one of downtown Charleston’s busiest streets. At the corner of Calhoun and Pitt Street, you can see the sanctuary for Bethel United Methodist Church. Underneath the church, multiple houses, parking lots and roads are 5 forgotten cemeteries in this area. Researcher Grant Mishoe thinks there are roughly 2,000 people buried in this collection. The burial site that is underneath is sanctuary is unique for the time period in which the cemetery was in use. Bethel Church buried whites and blacks together. They were buried on separate sides; however, in the same cemetery. This was not common for the time period.
Fourth we take you to Charleston’s Old Jail on Magazine Street in downtown Charleston. This is where the city once imprisoned sea pirates, members of a slave rebellion and Civil War prisoners. The jail is packed with history, but there is even older history buried underneath. This area was the site for the city’s first and second public burial grounds. Burials were very expensive so the city would bury those who could not afford one in their public cemetery. In these places, the city buried paupers, indigents, criminals etc.The first public graveyard follows a crescent shape because officials used to bury people along the outside of the city walls. The second public graveyard takes up a large square block where there are now houses, parking lots, roads and the Old Jail.
Last, we went to a site tucked back in the woods in North Charleston. This little section of woods is off Dorchester Road near the Air Force base. You cannot see it from the road, but there is a graveyard that belonged to a wealthy plantation owner and his family. This family was loyal to the British during the Revolutionary War and had some of their land taken away temporarily because of their controversial allegiance.