GREENVILLE, S.C. — They were buried more than 100 years ago, their bodies laid to rest on a steep hillside without tombstones. But these eternal resting spots were mostly forgotten to time.
Clemson University is working to find exactly who is buried in 604 unmarked graves —which undoubtedly belong to enslaved peoples, domestic workers, sharecroppers and convict laborers who lived, worked and died on the university’s land in the 1800s — found in the on-campus Woodland Cemetery.
Start the day smarter. Get all the news you need in your inbox each morning.
The discovery ignited a long-held, but not oft-discussed, truth about lands that once served as plantations, according to the site’s lead researcher.
“Long before a university or a college campus community, this place was an African American community,” university historian Paul Anderson said.
Now that the bulk of land surveying is complete, the university is working to discover who these people were, why they were forgotten and how Clemson can honor them, 100 years later.
Grave sites triple with radar search
Using ground-penetrating radar, the university initially found 200 graves on the western and southern slopes of the cemetery, which sits in the shadow of Memorial Stadium, home to the university’s No. 1 ranked college football team.
But after surveying the entirety of the property, researchers found 604 unmarked graves, thought to date back more than 200 years ago.
Tulsa: 99 years after Tulsa race massacre, unmarked mass grave found in search for victims, official says
The grave sites dot every hill face of the cemetery, equal in number to the known grave sites, most of which were dug after 1920 when Woodland became the cemetery for Clemson trustees, presidents and faculty, according to the university.
The sheer volume of unmarked graves makes sense in the time frame it was likely used, said former Clemson trustee Jim Bostic, who’s been working with researchers since the project’s inception.
“Until 1924, this was an African American Cemetery,” Bostic said.
Records reveal at least 70 people died within a few months after whooping cough and measles swept through Fort Hill in 1865, Bostic said, and the discovery of graves at the top of the hill could mean slaves were buried there as early as 1810.
“So if you’re looking at a burial ground that might have been in use as early as that era (1810), then extended its use for another century, the notion of 600 graves somehow becomes more manageable,” Anderson said.
At the top of Woodland’s steep hill are the graves for members of the Calhoun family, who founded Fort Hill Plantation under John C. Calhoun before the land was given to the state to become Clemson University.
Twelve unmarked grave sites were found in the Calhoun Family plot, which sits enclosed in a wrought iron fence at the top of Woodland, which is built on a hill.
The presence of the graves led researchers to think enslaved people were buried there before any Calhoun, based on historical knowledge of African American cemeteries.
“This is a traditional African American burial ground in the sense that it’s on a high point, it’s on a hill, it’s in a wooded area. And also at the time, the site would have overlooked water,” Anderson said.
Before Lake Hartwell was created in the mid-20th Century, the Seneca River flowed through Clemson’s campus near where Memorial Stadium and Perimeter Road are today.
Prior to John C. Calhoun, Reverend James McElhaney owned the plantation and had at least 25 slaves on the land that is now Clemson University, according to Anderson. The unmarked graves, if belonging to slaves who were on the land prior to Fort Hill, would’ve been on the McElhaney plantation.
The legend of Bras-Coupé: How police turned a Black man into a villain to save themselves
Clemson’s other plantation offers clues
Less than a mile away, on the shores of Lake Hartwell, Hopewell Plantation offered clues for researchers at Woodland.
Using ground-penetrating radar at Hopewell — the plantation founded by American Revolutionary Andrew Pickens after he fought against Native Americans in the 1700s — researchers were able to compare samples with those at Woodland to determine the burial sites found were of the era when slaves would’ve been buried, according to Anderson.
The two plantations on Clemson’s campus — with hundreds of slave graves embedded into the soft earth around them — were close enough when they were operational to have had a relationship, Anderson said.
“It is close enough, from a community point of view, to suspect that family or extended family could be buried in one place or the other,” he said.
The details of the African Americans’ lives who lived on Fort Hill, and maybe even Hopewell, have yet to be fully discovered.
Now that the surveying work is mostly complete, Anderson and a research assistant will begin combing through archives and census data to find out who was buried at Woodland and when.
Dr. Rhondda Thomas, the Calhoun Lemon Professor of History at Clemson, is working with the surrounding communities to comb through family histories to see if living descendants can be connected with ancestors at Woodland.
When the two researchers held open tours last weekend, more than 120 people showed up, including two local families who believe they have ancestors buried in Woodland, Anderson said.
Although the work may take months or even years more, Anderson said the university has the opportunity to tell a “multifaceted story” about the people who lived and worked the land surrounding Woodland, from the Cherokees who settled the land centuries ago, to the colonists who took it over, to the slaves who worked it and all the way to the students who call it home today.
“Clemson is uniquely positioned to tell a story that embraces multiple perspectives, over multiple eras, in ways that we’re just now really exploring and discovering … it’s not going to be the old way of talking about history … it’s far richer than that.”
Bostic said as the project gets “bigger and bigger and bigger,” the memorial for these unmarked graves will need to become larger, as well. Especially since the university has not treated these grave sites with care in the past, even though historical records indicated leaders knew of their existence.
“There are 89 people buried under the road … which someone paved over,” Bostic said.
A 1960 court order granted the university permission to move the remains from “Cemetery Hill,” but researchers don’t yet know if and why the remains were moved, according to the university.
Even with many questions left unanswered, Bostic said the project has become bigger than he initially imagined.
“And now instead of us having a small monument, we need to create something much bigger, that honors all of the cemetery,” Bostic said.
Follow Zoe Nicholson on Twitter: @zoenicholson_
This article originally appeared on Greenville News: Clemson University has found 604 unmarked graves on its South Carolina campus. But who were they?