Radar detects possible 200+ unmarked graves from 1800s at Clemson cemetery

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CLEMSON, SC (WSPA) – Clemson University officials announced Monday that ground-penetrating radar revealed the possible locations of more than 200 unmarked graves believed to be those of African Americans that date back more than century.

According to a news release, the radar revealed the possible locations of the graves in Woodland Cemetery on Clemson’s campus.

Clemson officials said the graves are believed to be those of “enslaved people who worked from about 1830 to 1865 on John C. Calhoun’s Fort Hill Plantation and later as sharecroppers and Black laborers, including convicted individuals involved in the construction of Clemson College from 1890 to 1915. All are believed to be African Americans,” according to the release.

According to the release, tests show disturbed soil about 5-feet below the surface, which indicates possible burial sites.

Clemson officials told us Monday that more than 215 possible burial graves and that more testing is pending at this time.

“We have 215 unmarked graves that we’ve identified,” said Paul Anderson, Clemson University Historian and Professor. “We are not sure how many graves we are going to find, how many unmarked burials we’re going to find on the Western slop,” Anderson added.

Marker flags have been placed at the cemetery where the radar has shown possible locations of the graves.

Many of the potential graves are located in the area of Woodland Cemetery to the west of the Calhoun family plots, which have long been thought to be the site of the graves of African Americans dating back to the 1800s, according to the release.

Officials said the university has reached out to leaders in the local African American community, and that Dr. Rhondda Thomas, the Calhoun Lemon Professor of Literature at Clemson, will be interacting with families to better understand who could be buried in the cemetery, as well as seek guidance on how the university should honor them.

“We are committed to taking all the critically important actions to enhance these grounds, preserve these grave sites and to ensure the people buried there are properly honored and respected,” Smyth McKissick, chairman of the Board of Trustees, said. “Clemson is dedicated to developing and sharing a full and accurate history of this area and to develop a preservation plan to protect it and those who rest here.”

Dr. Thomas said the discovery came about after a group of her students toured the cemetery back in February and were not satisfied with the African American burial site within the property,

“They were very upset about the lack of upkeep of the cemetery. There was a lot of trash that had been thrown into that burial ground,” Dr. Thomas said.

That’s when historians stepped in to see how those possible burials could be preserved and properly memorialized.

According to the release, the university hired a historian to assist Dr. Anderson, Clemson’s historian who is leading the research, and all of the work will be published on a website Clemson has started to help document the school’s role in Woodland Cemetery.

“Clemson requested a court order in September 1960 approving the school’s plan to locate graves in this area marked with field stones and to move them several hundred feet to an area to the south. The number of graves moved is not yet known, but it now appears many are still in their original location,” according to the release. “Efforts to identify and preserve these original historic gravesites in 1992 and again in the early 2000s were inconclusive.”

In 2002, Clemson reportedly installed protective fencing around the one-acre section and identified the area as the “Site of Unknown Burials.” Twenty-five of the grave sites recently found on radar were located in and around the fenced area.

According to the release, historic markers were erected at Woodland Cemetery in 2016, designating the area as the site of the Fort Hill Slave and Convict Cemetery, as well as acknowledged the roles played by enslaved and convicted individuals buried on the property.

Since tracking began in late July, the University is committed to continue to search for the unknown, all in hopes of properly honoring those lives tragically forgotten.

“My research shows that black lives hardly mattered at all at Clemson, until after desegregation. And the discovery that we made in this burial ground tells me black deaths mattered even less,” Dr. Thomas said. “We can not, not honor them because we are indebted to black labor for the existence of Clemson University,” she added.

Clemson University has hired a Post Doctoral Fellow in history, to help continue to investigate the issue with staff. They’re working with families and community partners to identify more unmarked graves and determine next steps.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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