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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Charleston, South Carolina: Belated Remembrance of an African-American Cemetery

Charleston, South Carolina. Monument on site of the cemetery of the Brown Fellowship Society, now part of the College of Charleston. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014

Charleston, South Carolina: Belated Remembrance of an African-American Cemetery
by Samuel D. Gruber 

I recently wrote about an 18th-century  Jewish cemetery in Charleston, South Carolina, the second oldest Jewish cemetery in the United States and one that is still cared for today and is the focus of a continuing maintenance and restoration effort. 

Another old cemetery in Charleston did not fare so well.  

Today, the African-American cemetery founded by the Brown Fellowship Society in 1790 is remembered only by a monument erected in 2008 by the College of Charleston at Rivers Green, an open area adjacent to the College's Addlestone Library, which apparently occupies at least part of the cemetery site. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston bought the cemetery site, which was adjacent to the Bishop England High School, in 1956 and later sold the land to the College of Charleston in 2001. Soon after, when excavation began for the new library, human remains and carved gravestones were uncovered.
 Charleston, South Carolina. Monument on site of the cemetery of the Brown Fellowship Society, now part of the College of Charleston. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014

According to Find a Grave,
although there are reports of promises made to move both headstones and human remains from Pitt Street to Cunnington Avenue [the Society's later cemetery] , only scant handful of headstones was moved. There is no evidence that any remains were removed, nor is the fate known of the rest of the many headstones and monuments, some of which were ornately and elaborately carved."
Today part of the site is a parking lot at 54 Pitt Street, whiles the area in front of the monument is a landscaped and paved open space for the College.

The College subsequently erected a monument commemorating the use of these grounds as a cemetery by the Brown Fellowship Society and other groups.  The two stone slabs are engraved with some of the the history of the site. The monument pays tribute to the Brown Fellowship Society and those buried in the cemetery but it offers no history of the shameful treatment of the site nor of the cemetery boundaries and how they related to the present topography. Still, the erection of the monument has helped revive interest in the Brown Fellowship society and other cultural and social aspects of Free Black Society in Charleston - one of the country's leading slave centers. The history of the cemeteries also is a poignant reminder of the history of American segregation - in death as in life - and by Christian churches until very recent times.

Building on cemeteries is not unusual in the United States. Most often human remains are removed beforehand - but not always. Historically African-American cemeteries have had fewer protections than cemeteries for dead white people, and they have received less attention and care when threatened.  This has changed in recent years - in large part due to the attention given to the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan excavated in the 1990s, but the case in Charleston shows that that kind of (government-funded) attention is the exception, not the rule. 


New York, NY. Bronze marker denoting location of African Burial Ground. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2005.

According to historian Dr. Rita Reynolds, of Wagner College, "The Brown Fellowship Society Burial Ground was established in 1790 by a group of wealthy free men of color in Charleston, S.C. In antebellum Charleston, cemeteries were racially segregated. Free blacks who did not wish to be buried with slaves established their own burial grounds to allow them a degree of dignity in death."



The Society consisted of free men of color in a time when most of the African-American population in Charleston was enslaved. It was the oldest and most prestigious free black organization that aimed to promote “charity and benevolence” among its members and also the community. These men joined together to form a fraternal organization and also a credit union for members. When a member of the Society passed away, the men supported the widow and family by conducting the burial in the cemetery on this site. The Humane Brotherhood was founded in 1843 and had many of the same functions. It was also composed of free black men who were successful working members of Charleston society.

The Brotherhood buried members in this location, and it is possible the cemetery was also used by two local churches, Plymouth Congregational and Bethel Methodist. The monument that stands today acknowledges the history, altruism and community involvement of the organizations who buried their members on this plot of land. The memorial honors those members who were buried, but also the organizations that contributed to the rich history of Charleston’s African-American community.
The Brotherhood buried members in this location, and it is possible the cemetery was also used by two local churches, Plymouth Congregational and Bethel Methodist. The monument that stands today acknowledges the history, altruism and community involvement of the organizations who buried their members on this plot of land. The memorial honors those members who were buried, but also the organizations that contributed to the rich history of Charleston’s African-American community.

Charleston, South Carolina. Monument on site of the cemetery of the Brown Fellowship Society, now part of the College of Charleston. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014

Records of the Fellowship Society are housed at the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture of the College Library. Charleston may have been unique in the large number of African-American burial societies that existed in the past (and still survive). Curiously to me, the organization and function of these societies is very similar to Jewish burials societies - both groups also provided care to the sick and poor and helped widows and orphans as well as carried out the procedures for burial of the dead. According to the Avery Research Center, as reported by Adam Parker in the Post and Courier in 2010, nine African-American burial societies in Charleston have been identified and eight survive - though some just barely.


Charleston, South Carolina. Monument on site of the cemetery of the Brown Fellowship Society, now part of the College of Charleston. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014