Tag Archives: Black History

Cemetery of the Week #90: Braddocks Point Cemetery

Condos overlooking the Braddocks Point Cemetery. Photograph by Kathleen Rhoads.

Condos overlooking the Braddocks Point Cemetery. Photograph by Kathleen Rhoads.

Also known as Harbourtown Cemetery
1 Spinnaker Court at Lighthouse Lane, Sea Pines Plantation
Harbour Town, South Carolina 29928
Founded: 1861
Size: 1 acre
Number of interments: unknown. Some may lie under the adjacent golf course.
Open: unknown. It lies inside a gated community and one source says you have to purchase a day pass from the gatekeeper in order to visit.

Beginning today (2/6/13) and lasting through the month of February is the Hilton Head Gullah Celebration. Details are available here.

Hilton Head Island is the largest sea island off the United States’ coast from Florida to New Jersey. The island lies off just the coast of Beaufort County, South Carolina. It’s 20 miles north of Savannah, Georgia, and 95 miles south of Charleston, South Carolina. It served as a seasonal home to Native Americans for hundreds of years before being discovered by a Spanish expedition in 1521. William Hilton, captain of the Adventure, named the island after himself in 1663. He spent several days there, restocking his ship from the island’s sweet water.

Modern granite gravestones amongst the historic graves.  Photograph by Kathleen Rhoads.

Modern granite gravestones amongst the historic graves. Photograph by Kathleen Rhoads.

The island became important to the American Sea Cotton trade in the 1800s. During the Civil War, the largest American fleet assembled stormed the island and occupied it. Afterward, it served as the base for Union naval blockades of Savannah and Charleston.

Escaped slaves flocked to the island, where they could own land and attend school while living in government-supplied housing. They stayed on after the war to start a new life. The Gullah culture survives today in food preparation and herbal medicines, in basket weaving, dancing, and worshipping. The Gullah dialect, mostly spoken by elders, combines African pronunciations with European words.

Hilton Head Island has several historic African-American cemeteries. Among them are Amelia Cemetery, Joe Pope Cemetery, Lawton Cemetery (no longer used), Pinefield Cemetery, Spanish Wells Cemetery, Talbird Cemetery, Union Cemetery, and the Braddocks Point Cemetery at the renowned Harbour Town in Sea Pines. Another historical cemetery, although not African American, is the Zion Chapel of Ease.

The Braddock’s Point Cemetery is reputed to contain graves of slaves, but these are unmarked. The oldest surviving headstones date to the Civil War. Descendants of those already interred there continue to use the graveyard to this day.

Handmade gravestone for Edward with a round indentation where a plate used to be. Photograph by Kathleen Rhoads.

Handmade gravestone for Edward with a round indentation where a plate used to be. Photograph by Kathleen Rhoads.

Charles L. Blockson, professor at Temple University, is quoted in Lay Down Body: Living History in African American Cemeteries: “ African American island tradition places great importance on burials taking place on ‘home ground.’” He continues to say, “Many who once lived on the islands believed that a person is composed of three parts: body, soul, and spirit. When the body dies, the soul departs, but the spirit remains behind and is capable of doing good or mischief to the living. As in West Africa, graves in the sea islands traditionally have been adorned with belongings of the departed and with charms designated to contain or placate the spirit of the person buried there.”

Bare ground and a gravestone with a plate inset. Photograph by Kathleen Rhoads.

Bare ground and a gravestone with a plate inset. Photograph by Kathleen Rhoads.

Some of the handmade cement gravestones in the Braddock’s Point Cemetery had or have ceramic plates pressed into them. These represent the last plate used by the deceased and are believed to give them something to eat from in the next world.

Another unusual feature of the graveyard is its bare sandy ground. African tradition emphasizes keeping the grave clean by plucking out all the vegetation. Of course, in the humid island air, this is an ongoing battle.

Useful links:

Gullah History and Lifestyle

Of Graveyards and Things’ post on the Braddock’s Point Cemetery

Photos of the handmade gravestones

Findagrave has a map to the Braddocks Point Cemetery

Basic transcriptions of the Hilton Head African American cemeteries

GPS information at CemeteryRegistry.us

Cemetery of the Week #87: Washington’s tomb

Postcard of Washington's tomb from 1907

Postcard of Washington’s tomb, dated 1907

Washington’s tomb
Mount Vernon
3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Highway
Mount Vernon, Virginia 22309
Telephone: (703) 780-2000
Tomb constructed: 1831
Number of interments in and around the vault: 25
Open: The estate is open 365 days of the year: November through February, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. March, September, and October, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. April 31st through August, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Admission: Adults $17, Seniors $16, Youths 6-11 $8. Children 5 and under are free. An additional $2 fee may be added. Details are here.

In 1797, George Washington happily retired from public life to return to his Virginia estate on the Potomac River. In December 1799, he toured the estate, called Mount Vernon, in the sleet. Afterward, he developed a sore throat that led to complications. After a two-day illness, Washington died while checking his own pulse in his master bedchamber on December 14, 1799. He was 67.

The Masonic ritual at Washington's first burial, from a first day of issue envelope from 1956.

The Masonic ritual at Washington’s first burial, from a first day of issue envelope from 1956.

According to Who’s Buried in Grant’s Tomb? A Tour of Presidential Gravesites, Washington feared being buried alive, so he directed his secretary to keep his body around for three days after death. Washington was originally buried in the simple family vault on the property. The rector of Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia, read the Episcopal Order of Burial, followed by a Masonic funeral rite conducted by two of Washington’s Lodge brothers.

In his will, Washington selected a site for a new brick tomb to replace the original vault. After an unsuccessful attempt at grave-robbing, the new tomb was finally designed. It wasn’t completed until 1831. His body was moved there, along with the remains of his wife Martha (who died in 1802), and other family members. In 1837, the tomb was enlarged to accommodate two marble sarcophagi, which were then provided for the remains of General and Mrs. Washington.

Over the tomb’s arched gateway, a marble slab says “Within this enclosure rest the remains of General George Washington.” One of my postcards says, the tomb “is a spot sacred to all Americans, a shrine visited annually by thousands.” The official website puts that number at around one million visitors each year, for a total of more than 80 million since 1860, when the Mount Vernon Ladies Association bought the estate in order to preserve it. The nonprofit organization – the oldest national historical association in the country – continues to oversee the estate now.

Postcard of Washington's tomb from 1932. One of the sarcophagi is visible.

Postcard of Washington’s tomb from 1932. One of the sarcophagi is visible.

The postcard goes on to say that “It is the custom for the officers and crew of all vessels to stand at attention and for the ships bell to be tolled in passing Mount Vernon on the Potomac” out of reverence for the first president. Naval ships continue the tradition.

From April through October, a wreath-laying ceremony takes place daily at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Mount Vernon also has a slave burial ground, which contains graves of both slaves and free blacks who worked for Washington and his family. Because the graves are unmarked, the number and identifies of those buried there is largely unknown. That said, among the unknowns lies William Lee, George Washington’s personal servant during the Revolutionary War.

In 1983, a Slave Memorial was designed and built by architecture students from Howard University. It stands adjacent to a Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association marker placed in 1929 to label the slave burial ground.

Useful links:
The extensive official Mount Vernon website

Pictures of the tomb, sarcophagus, and the original tomb

Details on the grave-robbing attempt that inspired the construction of the new tomb, as Washington had wanted

Waymarking the tomb

The history of Naval honors to Washington’s tomb

GPS information on CemeteryRegistry.us

Black History in American Graveyards

Lay Down Body: Living History in African American CemeteriesLay Down Body: Living History in African American Cemeteries by Roberta Hughes Wright

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book seems to have been designed as a textbook for an African American Studies program, but that’s not a bad thing. Whenever the Hugheses get down to the business of discussing black history, I learned things I’ve never seen discussed anywhere else. However, everything is viewed through the lens of race (as opposed to cemetery history). When the authors lament the destruction of historic black cemeteries, they don’t step away from their topic enough to see the destruction of all cemeteries that stand in the way of land developers or freeway construction. The guarantor of destruction is not race, but class. Poor Irish, poor Polish, poor Chilean, poor Chinese: if communities could not afford permanent markers or perpetual care for their dead, the dead were at risk of being evicted or paved over.

That said, the Hugheses made remarkable efforts to locate living historians in the African American communities they visited, whether those people were morticians, academicians, or storytellers. These stories, in the tellers’ own words, provide a wealth of detail missing in many dryer cemetery tomes.

Also included in the book is a vast amount of information on how to do genealogical research. The combination seems like a natural, but I haven’t seen it anywhere else.

The major drawback to the book is the muddiness of the illustrations. I’m not convinced that the photographs were taken intentionally as illustrations. No care seems to have been taken with the lighting or focus. Still, though, they cover subject matter collected nowhere else.

Copies are available through Amazon: Lay Down Body: Living History in African American Cemeteries.

This review was originally published in Morbid Curiosity #5.

Cemetery of the Week #65: African Burial Ground National Monument, New York City, New York

View all my Goodreads reviews.

Not the book the African Burial Ground deserves

Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence: The Story of New York's African Burial GroundBreaking Ground, Breaking Silence: The Story of New York’s African Burial Ground by Joyce Hansen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was excited to find a book about Manhattan’s African Burial Ground, which I visited for the first time in May 2002. At that time, the African Burial Ground was merely a patch of grass inside a chain-link fence with an historic plaque, not much of a remembrance for the thousands of Africans, slaves and free, who were interred there. Of course, after 9/11, commemorating the long-dead became less of a priority. Thankfully, the site has been made right at last.

The subtitle of this book is “The Story of New York’s African Burial Ground.” Unfortunately, when the book was published in 1998, not much seems to have been known about the graveyard. Perhaps Howard University was still performing the analyses of the 400+ bodies that were recovered, but only a handful of the reclaimed bodies are discussed here. Maybe the archaeologists were busy writing their papers for other publications, but there’s not much information about what they found. What’s there is fascinating, but scant.

Apparently there are few historical documents pertaining to the space, other than old maps. The authors pad out the book with history lessons drawn from legal records about the treatment and lives of the Africans brought to the colony by the Dutch, then the British, then the new-fledged Americans. The history was new to me, but not nearly as interesting as the contents of the graveyard — for which I’d purchased the book.

I hoped that there would be a new book available when I revisited the African Burial Ground (now a national monument) last week.  In fact, the African Burial Ground National Monument gift shop sold a small paper-bound booklet called New York’s African Burial Ground, but it lacks coherent structure and the text is repetitive. There still seems to be no solid book about this important graveyard.  This is a serious problem.

You can find used copies of Breaking Ground on Amazon: Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence: The Story of New York’s African Burial Ground (Coretta Scott King Author Honor Books)

New York’s African Burial Ground by Dr. Martia G. Goodson can be purchased from the Park Service here.

View all my reviews on Goodreads.

Cemetery of the Week #65: the African Burial Ground

The African Burial Ground National Monument

African Burial Ground National Monument
Duane Street, between Broadway and African Burial Ground Way/Elk Street
Manhattan, New York 10007
Telephone: (212) 637-2019
Opened to the public: October 5, 2007
Size: 6.6 acres is the estimated size of the entire burial ground.
Number of Interments: 419 inside the monument. Up to 20,000 may have once been buried in the surrounding area. Undoubtedly, some of them are still there.
Open: The monument is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The visitor center at 290 Broadway is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Both are closed on Federal holidays.
Admission: free. However, you must pass through security to see the visitor center or the exhibits inside the Ted Weiss Federal Building. No food or drink allowed.

As early as 1626, the Dutch imported Africans to work as slaves in New Amsterdam, now known as Manhattan. Technically owned by the Dutch East India Company, these Africans could own property, be baptized, and marry. In 1644, 11 male Africans won their freedom and control of the 100 acres they had been farming, but they had to continue to pay taxes in the form of crops to the Company. Their children were still enslaved.

When the British took over and renamed the island New York in 1664, slave laws became more stringent. As much as a quarter of the colonial workforce was enslaved. Africans were brought from the countries now called Sierra Leone, Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria, Mozambique, and Madagascar. They spoke a variety of languages and practiced different religions. Most suffered from malnutrition and injuries from overwork.

There seems to be no surviving record of when the burial ground was first used, but The Graveyard Shift: A Family Historian’s Guide to New York City Cemeteries suggests it might date from 1697, when Trinity Church began to prohibit the burial of Africans in its churchyard. Until the late 1700s, the “Negros Buriel Ground” – as it was labeled on maps from the second half of the 18th century – was the only graveyard allowed for the African population. The dead were wrapped in shrouds, placed in wooden coffins, and buried with their heads pointing toward the west. Some were buried with beads or coins on their eyes.

Used as a potter’s field, then serving the British as a graveyard for their prisoners during the Revolutionary War, the burial ground officially closed in 1794. After that, a pottery manufacturer used the area as a dump. In 1792, Chambers Street was cut across the cemetery grounds. In 1795, lots were developed and sold. The burial ground was buried and forgotten.

…Until 1991, when the United States General Services Administration broke ground for a new federal courthouse and office building in Lower Manhattan. The contractors were surprised when they began to come across graves 16 to 25 feet below street level. (I’m told that construction on the island of Manhattan is required to excavate as much weight below as the building above will add, in order not to add too much weight and sink the island. I’m not sure that’s true, but it does explain the seven sub-basements below the World Trade Center.) Once anthropologists took over, they estimated that up to 20,000 Africans were buried in an area that once covered as many as five city blocks.

Lay Down Body: Living History in African American Cemeteries reported on the struggle between archaeologists who wanted to excavate the anthropological relics with “dental pick and toothbrush” and the government contractors who preferred to use a backhoe. In the end, parts of 419 skeletons went to Howard University in Washington, D.C. for forensic analysis.

Since the burial ground was significant in both regional and national history, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. A tiny fragment of the graveyard was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1993. The Graveyard Shift reported in 1998 that the remains were supposed to be returned to New York for reburial under a memorial pavilion on the original site.

When I visited in 2002, I was thrilled to see mention of the African Burial Ground Historic District atop the street signs. For once, it seemed that a forgotten cemetery was getting the respect it deserved. When I finally tracked down the remnant of the burial ground on my last morning in New York City, I found only a painted wooden sign listing a few brief facts inside a chain-link fence around a small patch of grass across from the Javits Federal Building. The reburial ceremony had been derailed by September 11, 2001.

Extra coffin inside the visitor’s center.

Finally in October 2003, a traditional African burial ceremony took place. The remains were placed in coffins handmade in Ghana and accompanied to the monument site by dancers, singers, and priests.

President George W. Bush signed a proclamation in February 2006, which designated the burial site as a National Monument. The U.S. National Park Service took over management of the site at that point. The memorial was finally dedicated in 2007. Maya Angelou and Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke.

Currently, the Park Service mans an Interpretive Center and gift shop on the first floor of the Ted Weiss Federal Building, located at 290 Broadway, between Duane and Reade Streets. This Visitors Center houses a small museum, which discusses the history of Africans in the colonial era. One wall displays archeological photographs of the gravesites. There are the stories the bones can tell us and a record of the grave goods, but everything tangible has been returned to the ground now. “The African Burial Ground,” the Park Service’s brochure says, “is widely acknowledged as one of America’s most significant archeological finds of the 20th century.” It’s good that this museum exists as a record of it.

Next door, inside the Ted Weiss building proper are more exhibits about the burial ground, but I’d visited too late in the day to see them.

Map showing the complete African Burial Ground

Around behind the building lies the African Burial Ground National Monument itself. First you come upon seven small mounds, which cover the vaults in which the remains were placed. The site includes “The Circle of the Diaspora,” a spiral map of the world surrounded by African symbols and religious talismans from many faiths. The final part of the monument is the 24-foot black stone “Ancestral Libation Chamber,” designed by Architect Rodney Leon.

The monument and visitors center are sobering reminders of the sacrifices forced upon the people who built this country. Plan to leave time to meditate or pray at the site.

Useful links:

The National Park Service site

African Burial Ground FAQs

The text of President Bush’s proclamation

Free walking tour of Lower Manhattan called “A Broader View: Exploring the African Presence in Early New York”

GPS coordinates & a photo map via CemeteryRegistry.us

Books I’ve reviewed that reference the African Burial Ground:

Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence: The Story of New York’s African Burial Ground

Lay Down Body: Living History in African American Cemeteries

The Graveyard Shift