For years, advocates for Cainhoy’s McDowell Cemetery and an adjacent African American burial ground warned encroaching developers that unmarked graves may be located outside of the site’s defined borders. Turns out they may have been right.
One week after Crescent Homes began clearing land around the cemeteries for new homesites in the Oak Bluff subdivision, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) ordered the developer to halt all work, citing the discovery of what appeared to be eight gravesites in a newly cleared area off the cemetery’s dirt access road.
On May 5, Grant Mishoe of The Gullah Society, Charleston City Councilwoman Marie Delcioppo and Cainhoy area residents Fred Lincoln and MaeRe Skinner were visiting the site when Mishoe spotted what appeared to be a burial plot.
“And then it was like one right after the next, after the next,” said Delcioppo, who immediately took photos documenting the find and sent them off to city officials and DHEC. Within hours, DHEC’s Chris Stout sent an email to Crescent Homes Vice President for Land Development Bob Pickard, directing him to stop construction activities so a proper archaeological survey can be conducted, as required by law.
“I am ecstatic!” stated Skinner, who has relatives buried at the site and has been working to bring attention to the cemeteries for more than two decades. “This is like a dream come true.”
Delcioppo said the new discoveries, likely African American graves, were identified by rectangular-shaped soil depressions.
“Four were directly in a row, very neat and very organized, the others were kind of scattered,” she noted. “... And they all had that east-west direction of a Christian burial.”
The suspected graves are on property owned by the developer where new homesites are planned. They are located just a short distance away from a documented African American burial ground and McDowell Cemetery, a White Revolutionary War-era graveyard also known as the Old Ruins Cemetery. The developer did not respond to a request for comment on the stop work order, but Skinner, who serves as chairperson of the Cainhoy Methodist Church and Cemetery “Old Ruins” Corp., had a message for them.
“I told you so!” she exclaimed.
Brian Turner, director of advocacy for the Preservation Society of Charleston, called the latest development “a good outcome” and praised political leadership for raising awareness about the historic nature of the property, crediting Delcioppo, State Rep. Mark Smith, and Mayor John Tecklenburg for engaging on the issue and creating more awareness.
“We are proud to stand with our partners at the Gullah Society, Daniel Island Historical Society and Cainhoy Methodist Church and Cemetery Corporation to ensure that dignity is given to all the unmarked burial sites in the area, acknowledging that the stories of those who rest there are at risk of being forever lost to time,” Turner added. “Moving forward, advocates can take stock in the fact that supplemental review of the site will occur by professional archaeologists and that the public will have greater assurance about the extent of the cemetery prior to any further development activity.”
“I’m elated,” said Lincoln, who has family ties to the African American burial ground. “All we wanted to do was to scrutinize the property ... Now going forward if there are no graves there they can go on with their construction ... I’ll feel better sleeping at night, knowing I did all that was required and what I should have done.”
“It is very emotional,” said Delcioppo, who, like Skinner and Lincoln, hopes to one day see the two sites combined into one cemetery, not labeled as White or Black. “…There is something about when you go out to McDowell that’s just, I can’t explain it. It’s a completely different feeling that you have. You just know there is something here that needs to be told.”