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The cemetery gates are open displaying a large granite marker set at the end of a straight path.

Woodland Cemetery
Historic Preservation

History of The African-American Burial Site

Clemson University is committed to transparency and accuracy in telling the history of the African-American burial ground in Woodland Cemetery (PDF).

In the coming months, this website will serve as an accounting of the university's role in Woodland Cemetery and a place to share stories about African Americans who are buried there.

The website will grow and develop as the office of the university historian continues its research. That work includes further exploration of the burial ground as well as research in university archives, off-campus document collections, and other resources and contexts such as oral histories.

Among the website's principal features will be an interactive timeline that traces the history of Woodland Cemetery and includes links to original university and community documents as well as images and other records – updated with each discovery for those who wish to examine the records for themselves. This research may take several years.

Engaging the history of Clemson University and the local community is an essential component of the school’s land-grant mission. It guides us, and it grounds us. We value truth, and we value inclusiveness.

This website will tell that story.

View of white flags showing placement of unmarked graves in Woodland cemetery

What Happened?

In February 2020, after taking part in a tour designed by the Call My Name project, Clemson students approached Dr. Rhondda Thomas about the African-American burial site in Woodland Cemetery. The site, designated only by a black fence enclosing less than an acre in the south part of the cemetery, was littered, unkempt, and uncared for; the fence was broken or completely down in places; there was no signage or other marker to designate it as the burial ground or to honor the site. Dr. Thomas suggested to the students that they contact Dr. Paul Anderson, the University historian.

In June and July

At the burial ground, members of the site team began identifying possible graves within the fenced area by marking field stones—the traditional markers of African-American graves—with small flags. But the site team also found field stones well outside the fenced area, extending over a range of three acres along the south and west sides of the cemetery. Suspecting that the burial ground was far larger than known or marked—and with documentary evidence that perhaps as many as 250 African Americans were thought to have been buried on the hill—the site team determined to run ground penetrating radar (GPR) tests at either end of the three-acre site to determine the burial ground’s outer boundaries and extent. The initial planned scope of the GPR work is shown in red on the accompanying maps.

Planned Cemetery GPR Scope Planned GPR Scope – Western Slope Planned GPR Scope – Southern Hillside
Screen capture of pdf map of the cemetery displaying unmarked graves.
Screen capture of plat map of the cemetery where GPR will take place

July 28 and July 29

The day before the GPR testing was to begin at the site, archival research revealed a document previously not known to the team: a 1960 court order requested by Clemson University granting the university permission to move the African-American burial ground from the west side of the cemetery, directly behind the Calhoun family plot, to the south side—that is, the area that the team was supposed to test the next day. The team decided to pivot and focus a partial GPR testing in the area described in the court order—the western side of the cemetery—which revealed the existence of 160 graves still present and undisturbed, though unmarked.

State of South Carolina, County of Oconee, Court of Common Pleas, Ex parte: The Clemson Agricultural College of South Carolina, In Re: The Purported Cemetery of Unknown Deceased Persons, Petition, 22 August 1960, and Order, 3 September 1960, Box 2, Folder 17, Carrel Cowan-Ricks Papers, Special Collections and Archives, Clemson University Libraries.

 

Unmarked Burials Southern Hillside Unmarked Burials Western Slope

Here are the truths we know:

 

  1. In an initial survey of Woodland Cemetery on July 29, 2020, we identified what we believe to be 215 unmarked graves in an African-American burial ground that dates from circa 1830. We expect to find more.
  2. We know a significant portion of the African-American gravesites—160 graves thus far—are on the western side of the hill in Woodland Cemetery.
  3. We know there are modern-era burials intruding into the historic African-American burial ground, and there may be plot boundaries that contain historic burials and modern-era burials.
  4. We know in 1960 the university requested and received a court order (PDF) to move enslaved people and laborer graves, and we know the university did move some of those graves to an area in the southern part of the cemetery.
  5. We know the university undertook several efforts in the 1990s and 2000s to identify historic gravesites in the cemetery, but the results were inconclusive; beginning in 1993 the university began assigning “new” plots within the historic African-American burial ground.
  6. We know the university has failed to properly honor, mark, or protect this burial ground despite some attempts to do so since 1946 (PDF).
  7. We know, right now, that we do not know more. We do not know what, in fullness, happened. We do not know the fullness of why it happened. But what we know now is disturbing enough to raise significant and uncomfortable questions that will likely take several years of research to answer.

“Minutes of the Building and Grounds Committee, 11 March 1946,” Series 7, Box 1, Folder 6, Robert F. Poole Presidential Records, Committee Files, 1928-1955, Special Collections and Archives, Clemson University Libraries.

Path around Woodland cemetery with trees on the right and grave markers on the left.
A view down the ornamental metal fence that surrounds a portion of the cemetery.

Living Archive

Discovering history is a dynamic process. What we know changes with what we discover, over time; what we discover can also change the questions we ask, sometimes dramatically. The answers we thought we had can also change.

It is, above all things, a living process—and a humbling process. A narrative—what happened, how it happened, and most importantly why it happened—emerges with research, with diligence, and with context. Our project is just beginning. Even in the most complete histories, weaving together a story from a series of separate events must be undertaken cautiously. We aspire to the truth: to the best history. It will take time.

But we also aspire to accountability. Clemson University is committed to a full and truthful account of Woodland Cemetery, and in the spirit of transparency, we are creating a living archive to share important documents, images, and other records as we come to discover them. A “living archive” is the project and the process of discovery in history made transparent. It is meant to evolve, as question-asking and question-answering in history evolves. It allows all of us to witness history taking breaths in real time.

What Happens Next?

We are just beginning. Our first step is to take the next step – which is to continue to engage with the local African-American communities, and with our campus community. At the cemetery, the site team will immediately begin additional GPR testing to find additional graves and determine the extent of the African-American burial site – work that is likely to take several weeks to complete. Signage suitably reverent to the cemetery grounds will be installed to mark and identify the areas where gravesites have been identified. We are also working toward stabilizing the site to address and prevent erosion.

An ad hoc task force comprised of three members of the Board of Trustees has been appointed to develop a preservation plan for submission to the Board. A Legacy Council was also appointed and will assist with the development of the plan including engagement with the local African-American community. The Legacy Council is comprised of Trustee David Dukes serving as Chair, Dr. Rhondda Thomas, Dr. Paul Anderson (university historian), President Emeritus James F. Barker, and Dr. James Bostic.

The preservation plan will provide for dignity and respect for the deceased, a solemn and respectful place for remembrance by the community and will be grounded upon a full and accurate telling of the history of the cemetery. Of critical importance will be gaining an understanding of the desires and wishes of any identifiable living descendants of those buried at the historic site and the local African-American community.

Long-term research will also begin immediately. The University has hired a professional historian whose sole task will be this project and the development of the permanent website to support it; this scholar will work under the supervision of the university historian but with the collaboration and support of Archives and Special Collections, Historic Properties, and other university entities, faculty, and staff affiliated with the project.

White flags mark the location of unmarked burials found using ground penetrating radar.

We also are working to implement security measures to ensure the integrity of the grounds as our research continues. Thus far these steps include closing the roads within the cemetery to vehicular traffic and establishing daylight visiting hours. Additional security precautions, including video monitoring, will follow in the coming weeks. The goal of these measures is to safeguard the African-American burial ground as well as to protect the peace for all who rest at Woodland Cemetery.

Woodland Cemetery has served as a faculty and staff cemetery since 1924. We are aware that current employees and retirees may have questions about the current status of the cemetery based on the identification of these historic gravesites. More information will be available in the coming weeks outlining plans from the Board of Trustees regarding burials at Woodland Cemetery.

The entrance to the Woodland Cemetery showcases the name etched into a granite collumn.

Contact Us

For inquiries about the African-American burial ground and ongoing historic preservation efforts, please contact afamburials@clemson.edu or (864) 656-8719.

For inquiries about the operations of Woodland Cemetery, please contact cemetery@clemson.edu or (864) 656-5615.

For media inquiries, please contact news@clemson.edu or (864) 656-2061.