Skip to content

Woodland Cemetery Historic Preservation

About Woodland Cemetery Historic Preservation

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. Ground penetrating radar (GPR) work conducted on the site in August and September 2020 resulted in the recovery of 604 unmarked graves. In January 2021, additional GPR work in the northeast and southeast corners of the cemetery detected 63 more burials, resulting in the recovery of 667 total unmarked graves.
  2. We know a significant portion of the African American gravesites 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 are 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 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.

History of the Project

In February 2020, after taking part in a tour designed by the Call My Name project, Clemson students Sarah Adams and Morgan Molosso 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 the University Historian, as well as Historic Properties, Campus Planning, and Facilities staff to help devise a plan to clean up and preserve the site and install a memorial.

In June and July 2020

At the burial ground, the site team, comprised of crew members from Preservation South, Summit Engineering, and Clemson University Facilities, began identifying possible graves within the fenced area by marking field stones with small flags. Field stones are the traditional markers of African American graves. 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, 2020

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

August and September 2020

The site team conducted several phases of additional GPR work that ultimately resulted in the recovery of 604 unmarked burials—most of them clustered on the northern, northwestern, and western slopes of the hill, the area long understood as the African American burial ground. A substantial number were also detected on the southern and southeastern quadrants of the hill. The GPR survey also detected 12 unmarked burials at the crest of the hill, within the fenced area enclosing the gravesites of several members of the Calhoun family. The first of these Calhoun family burials, John C. Calhoun, the young son of Andrew Pickens Calhoun, occurred in 1837; he is the first known white person buried in the cemetery. The recovery of 12 unmarked burials at the hill crest raises the possibility that African Americans were buried on the site prior to the Calhoun family’s acquisition of Fort Hill. 

January 2021

The site team surveyed the northeast and southeast corners of the cemetery, areas which were previously unmapped due to overgrowth. The ground penetrating radar (GPR) detected 63 more burials in those two areas, bringing the total number of unmarked graves to 667.

Time-Lapse of GPR Work at Woodland Cemetery

Video created by Trey Sherer, Clemson University

Next Steps

We are just beginning. Our first step is to take the next step – which is to engage with the local African American communities and with our campus community. 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 local African American communities. The Legacy Council is comprised of Trustee David Dukes serving as Chair, Dr. Rhondda Thomas, President Emeritus James F. Barker, and Dr. James Bostic. Learn more about the Project Team

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 has also begun. 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.

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.