CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson University anthropology students will be scratching below the surface of upstate history in a cemetery where former slaves were buried and, until recently, forgotten.
The cemetery, located in a community settled by freed slaves in the 1800s, was discovered about four years ago by surveyors working on the church property.
“It’s been hidden history for so long,” says Mable Clarke, whose great-great-grandfather Joseph McJunkin founded the community of descendants of Liberian slaves.
A nearly impenetrable thicket encased the cemetery. Volunteers from area churches brought earth-moving equipment and chainsaws “and inched their way in so not to disturb the graves,” says Clarke.
The cemetery has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, added to the state’s Heritage Corridor, and there are plans for a kiosk and brochure about the cemetery and the history of the early Black community and church.
Recently, Dr. Mike Coggeshall, a Clemson University anthropology professor studying the mountain cultures in Pickens and Oconee counties, stopped his car in a driveway along a mountain road to take a picture of Table Rock. It happened to be Clarke’s driveway.
Thinking Coggeshall was lost or stranded, Clarke offered help. It seems they were able to help each other.
On a Saturday, students in Clemson’s Anthropology Club visited the cemetery to rake, measure, identify and map as many graves as possible.
“They have been there over 150 years. Their story is important to tell,” Coggeshall says.
Clemson archeologist Dr. Melissa Vogel and Clemson forensic anthropologist Katy Weisensee will supervise the project that lets students work on a real site using skills from archeological, biological and cultural classes, says Coggeshall.
“We hope to identify any patterns in the gravesites, such as family clusters, and create a map of the cemetery for preservation purposes,” he says. “We also want to document, preserve and interpret the sites for regional tourism.”
The number of graves is unknown, and one goal of the project is to determine how many people are buried there, says Coggeshall.
Sunday services are still held at the concrete block and stucco church that is the third to be built on the site next to a huge soapstone outcropping.
The first was a brush arbor church built from small saplings that served the congregation of about 900 freed slaves until a wooden church could be built, Clarke says.
The wooden church was burned to the ground by the Ku Klux Klan in 1966. Clarke was away at college at the time and heard about it from her parents, who lived next to the church.
“It was just starting to get dark, and they could see the smoke and the flames coming out. They went to see what was going on. It was so engulfed at the time there was no way to save it,” Clarke says.