Burial Sites Believed to Be Those of African Americans Dating Back More Than a Century
Clemson, SC – Ground-penetrating radar has revealed the possible locations of more than 200 unmarked graves in Woodland Cemetery on the Clemson University campus believed to date back more than a century.
The graves are thought to be those of enslaved people who worked from about 1830 to 1865 on John C. Calhoun’s Fort Hill Plantation and later as sharecroppers and Black laborers, including convicted individuals involved in the construction of Clemson College from 1890 to 1915. All are believed to be African Americans.
The university has reached out to leadership in the local African-American community. Dr. Rhondda Thomas, the Calhoun Lemon Professor of Literature at Clemson whose research and teaching focuses on early African-American literature and culture, will be engaging with area families to better understand who might be buried in the Woodland Cemetery and to seek guidance on what steps the university should take moving forward to honor them.
The school has hired a dedicated historian to assist Dr. Paul Anderson, the university historian who is leading the research. All of the work will be published to a website Clemson started to document the university’s role in Woodland Cemetery and give voice to the African Americans who are buried there.
“We are committed to taking all the critically important actions to enhance these grounds, preserve these grave sites and to ensure the people buried there are properly honored and respected,” said Smyth McKissick, chairman of the Board of Trustees. “Clemson is dedicated to developing and sharing a full and accurate history of this area and to develop a preservation plan to protect it and those who rest here.”
Testing shows disturbed soil roughly five feet beneath the surface indicating possible burial sites. Continued investigation of the cemetery could identify additional potential burial sites in the coming weeks and months.
Many of the possible graves are in an area of Woodland Cemetery to the west of the Calhoun family plots long thought to be the site of graves of African Americans dating back to the 1800s.
Clemson requested a court order in September 1960 approving the school’s plan to locate graves in this area marked with field stones and to move them several hundred feet to an area to the south. The number of graves moved is not yet known, but it now appears many are still in their original location. Efforts to identify and preserve these original historic gravesites in 1992 and again in the early 2000s were inconclusive.
The school installed protective fencing around a roughly one-acre section to the south in 2002 and identified it as the “Site of Unknown Burials.” Twenty-five of the grave sites recently revealed by radar are located within and around this fenced area.
Clemson erected historic markers at Woodland Cemetery in 2016 designating the area as the site of the Fort Hill Slave and Convict Cemetery and acknowledging the roles played by enslaved and convicted individuals buried here.
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