Clemson researchers prepare for next steps after more than 600 possible unmarked graves found

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CLEMSON, SC (WSPA)–Clemson University announced Friday, testing has revealed 604 possible unmarked graves which are believed to be those of African Americans in the university’s Woodland Cemetery.

Work to find the possible graves began in late July. Initially, officials found more than 200 unmarked graves which dated back more than a century. Clemson leaders said the 215 possible unmarked graves were found mostly in the western and northern part of the cemetery.

“When we announced our findings in August, we had located 215 unmarked burials, most of them in an area in the western slope of the hill which would’ve traditionally been identified as the African American burial ground and since that time, we’ve done additional GPR work, that essentially, it’s not exactly accurate, but essentially, we covered the entire cemetery. 

Officials said a completed ground-penetrating radar (GPR) testing found more unmarked graves throughout much of the cemetery which may pre-date the John C. Calhoun’s plantation. The final number is more than 600.

Calhoun’s Fort Hill Plantation was located on the land from 1830 to 1865.

The university said many were also found in an area to the south and southeast which was previously identified as the “Site of Unknown Burials.”

Clemson officials said the graves are believed to be those of “enslaved people who worked at the plantation and later as sharecroppers and Black laborers, including convicted individuals involved in the construction of Clemson College from 1890 to 1915.”

“We could see this as an opportunity. We can see that a mistake was made, and that mistake can be amended,” said David Maddox, a cemetery visitor.

Maddox visited the cemetery for the first time, and was shocked to hear about the discovery. Historians said some of the graves are at the crest of the inside of a fenced area where family members of Calhoun were buried in 1837.

“Right now, the thinking is, that the area traditional defined as the African American Burial Ground was west and northwest and north on the slope, and then the removals came later,” Anderson said.

In 1960, Clemson requested a court order to move the African -American Burial ground from the western and northern area to an area south in the cemetery. Later the south portion was called, ‘The Site of the Unknown Burials”. This has left some people wondering if many were forgotten.

“I hope that Clemson, this community is able to truly dig though our past and confront maybe some of the darkness,” Maddox said. “I would hope that if there has been dishonor, that we would make amends by bestowing honor,” he added.

The school said they’ve already started outreach efforts with the community and connected with a few possible family members. Historians said this is just the beginning of uncovering a mystery and honoring those gone.

“We’re obviously thinking about memorialization of the site again, with no firm plans,” Anderson said.

Anderson said the University is still thinking through next steps for onsite research. However, the historian said the University is committed to getting answers.

“That is literally the first step as to what will likely be thousands of steps to take to understand fully and comprehensively the history of that site. So we’re really just getting started,” Anderson said. “This is going to take several years before we have any sense of a full and comprehensive history of the site. Even the memorialization is going to take time to think through,” he added.

Anderson said a legacy council has also been established. The legacy council is charged with putting together proposals and plans for memorialization and preservation.

The university also said for the last month, a full-time post doctoral fellow has been going through records, archived research, and more.

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