** UPDATE** 5.6.21 - STOP WORKER ORDER ISSUED TO DEVELOPER
On May 5, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) directed the developer of the Oak Bluff subdivision to halt construction on a new phase of the neighborhood planned for the area adjacent to the Old Ruins Cemetery and an African American burial ground. The move came after Charleston City Councilwoman Marie Delcioppo visited the site and discovered what she suspected were unmarked graves in the area recently cleared by the developer. Delcioppo identified eight possible graves and alerted city officials and DHEC of her discovery. Look for more details on this developing story in next week’s issue.
ORIGINAL STORY 5.5.21
Fred Lincoln and Johanna Martin-Carrington stood hand in hand last week at the Old Ruins Cemetery, where others have gathered for centuries to mourn the passing of loved ones.
They have deep roots in the Cainhoy community – and their heartfelt gesture reflected the poignancy of the moment. They are connected to this sacred space, as both have relatives buried in the African American burial ground just beyond the cemetery’s fence, and they are united in their efforts to see that it is protected.
“We are here today ... to pay respect to our ancestors and their burial site,” said Lincoln, as community members and several descendants of those laid to rest here looked on. “We have lost numerous burial grounds on Clements Ferry Road, and we wanted to make sure that today we protect this gravesite and honor those who went before us.”
The day of their gathering, April 28, the developer of the nearby Oak Bluff development had cleared out a large section of trees around much of the cemetery in preparation for construction on the neighborhood’s newest phase. It marked a turning point for Lincoln, MartinCarrington and others in the local community, who came out to the site to make sure their voices were heard. The developer’s actions that day frustrated Lincoln, he said, and he told the crowd gathered that they had one simple request prior to the start of construction.
“They have designated an area that they say all the graves are,” he said. “All we ask is that we examine the rest of the property to make sure that our ancestors are not built over or on. That simple request has been denied and you can see today that they have brought in bulldozers and (are) disrespecting and probably trampling over our ancestors. We can no longer sit by idly and allow this to happen.”
Martin-Carrington, now age 90, lived much of her life away from Charleston on the West Coast, but has since returned. Her father, sister and infant son are buried in an overgrown area beyond the fence line at Old Ruins, also known as McDowell Cemetery.
“We’re here to take care of family,” stated Martin-Carrington, who serves as chairperson of the board of directors for The Gullah Society, a nonprofit organization that is working to preserve and protect African American burial grounds throughout the Charleston region. “We’re gonna take away those fences. And I don’t mean the physical fence. But those fences that divide us in terms of what kind of gravesites we have. We’re gonna honor all of the people who are buried in these graves … and it’s gonna be something, hopefully, that we leave to our children and our grandchildren.”
Recent ground penetrating radar and research at the site, conducted by the Gullah Society’s Grant Mishoe, has revealed the presence of dozens of “anomalies” both inside and outside the cemetery’s fenced borders, which could indicate possible unmarked graves. Also joining Lincoln and Martin-Carrington at the site last week, along with members of the media, were John Wright, president of the African American Historic Settlement Community Commission, and Cainhoy community native MaeRe Chandler Skinner, who has five generations of family members buried in the Old Ruins Cemetery.
“This is critically important to this community,” said Wright, who is working to ensure that historic African American communities are not negatively impacted by development. “… But it’s (also) important to the world. These things aren’t just happening here … We’ve got to be the change agent.”
“My father thought there were some African American graves over there, so I kept harping on it and harping on it,” added Skinner, clutching a binder of information she has collected over the years documenting the cemetery’s history. “There have been three developers here over the last 23 years ... Every city council meeting, every zoning meeting, we were there and we raised Cain about it, and we said, you have to find these graves, you have to find these graves.”
Although the developer, Oak Bluff Development LLC, did begin widespread removal of trees in the area that day, a pre-planned meeting with company representative Bob Pickard and Charleston City Councilmember Marie Delcioppo and S.C. State House Rep.
Mark Smith took place Friday morning. According to Delcioppo, also joining in were Lee Batchelder of the City of Charleston and Chris Stout of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC).
“I found the meeting beneficial and feel there is the continued opportunity for productive conversation and results,” Delcioppo said.
According to Smith, the developer did not agree to conduct ground penetrating radar on the site, as requested by Lincoln, Skinner, and others, and is ready to move forward on the project after going through “all of the proper and legally required processes to improve this property.”
“While I was disappointed they wouldn’t allow them to radar the area, I am extremely appreciative and remain very hopeful that the developer is going to do all that they can to make sure that the existing known graves and graveyards are going to be respectfully incorporated,” Smith said.
The developer did note that once the project is complete they would “consider” deeding over the African American burial ground to the Cainhoy Methodist Church and Cemetery Old Ruins Corporation, which holds the deed to the Old Ruins Cemetery, and possibly create a new fenced in area to include both cemeteries, added Smith.
“I feel this is a beautiful example of how private citizens and existing neighbors from a neighborhood and developers can come together and try to find some middle ground for an end product that would be beneficial for all concerned,” Smith continued. “Neither side truly got everything they wanted and asked for, but I was very pleased with the fact that everyone was willing to have a discussion on what could happen.”
The Daniel Island News reached out to Bob Pickard of Oak Bluff Development LLC for comment for this article, but did not hear back by press time.
Smith said he is hopeful that if any human remains are discovered in the process the developer would “do the right thing” and report to the proper state agencies and authorities as required by law.
“Due to the sensitivity of this project and the amount of concern,” expressed by community members, he continued, once construction begins, DHEC will conduct unannounced visits at the site to ensure all activities are being conducted properly.