Documenting Sacred Spaces

Mapping Black Burial Grounds Project approaches first anniversary
To unknowing eyes, it would appear to be just a small patch of woods on the edge of a residential community along the bustling Clements Ferry Road corridor on the Cainhoy peninsula. 
But a closer look reveals hidden clues. A portion of a stone poking out from layers of brush. Tiny orange and pink flags scattered where the ground dips and rises. A small rectangular rusted metal sign with a name. 
All tell an important story – one that La’Sheia Oubré and Joanna Gilmore of the Anson Street African Burial Ground Project are working to make sure others hear. 
“This is Sam Martin, Junior,” noted Oubré, as she spotted a marker sticking up from the leaves on a recent visit. 
This sacred spot tucked away on the outskirts of the Oak Bluff subdivision is one of many African American burial grounds in the city of Charleston that are now being documented as part of the Mapping Charleston’s Black Burial Grounds Project (Mapping Project). The project was initiated by the Preservation Society of Charleston in 2022 through a grant from the National Park Service. Newly constructed homes sit just a few feet away from the graveyard, their presence a reminder of why this work is needed. 
“That particular site really was a catalyst for us to apply for this grant funding to carry out this project,” said Anna-Catherine Carroll, manager of preservation initiatives for the Preservation Society of Charleston. “Because it was so emblematic of the issues that come along with the lack of regulation and oversight at the local level.”
Located beside the McDowell/Old Ruins Cemetery, which has many tombstones visible and is surrounded by a fence, the African American burial ground here has no sign and no enclosure. A dirt path, added in recent months, winds down through the woods to nearby Martin’s Creek. Oubré doesn’t mind the setting’s natural state.
“The one thing about cemeteries, they’re all beautiful,” she explained. “There’s nothing wrong with nature. This is God’s doing. This is the heavens and the angels speaking.”
Oubré and Gilmore have worked on a number of burial ground preservation projects, including the reinterment of the remains of 36 individuals of African descent uncovered during construction of the Charleston Gaillard Center in 2013. 
“I was always taught growing up that you take care of and protect burial grounds,” said Oubré. “You go back and you visit, you don’t forget them. You tell their children who they are, and they tell their children who they were. And you tell the stories of the people that were here – because your past guides your future.”
“(For me), it’s the sense of the need for justice and respect for those places,” added Gilmore. 
Oubré and Gilmore, along with Carroll and others working on the Mapping Project, spent last summer hosting “listening sessions” in communities like this one to learn more about local burial grounds that are in need of documentation and protection. Attended by more than 70 people across the city, the sessions provided team members with valuable insights. An online survey form was also distributed to allow a broader audience to contribute information. 
“Based on this input, we are currently working to create a citywide map of burial grounds that will be utilized by the City of Charleston Planning Department to better protect burial sites from development impact,” Carroll said.
“We’re meeting wonderful communities and having conversations,” Oubré added. Every time you speak to a community a new thought comes out, a new idea, a new community conversation can be built.”
There is currently no official inventory of African American burial sites in the Charleston region to ensure development is planned proactively to avoid willful or unknowing desecration. Some of these hallowed grounds are being cared for by community members. Others have been disappearing from the landscape – lost to development, gentrification, and the passage of time – taking with them important history and heritage. 
“Burial grounds are sacred places,” Carroll said. “And their preservation is a community responsibility. As Charleston grows and develops, under-documented burial sites are at greater risk, and this project helps bridge the information gap.”
The McDowell/Old Ruins Cemetery, and adjoining African American burial ground, helped inspire a new City of Charleston cemetery ordinance, passed in 2021, that gives the city the ability to issue a stop work order to developers when suspected graves may be present in the area, whereas before those orders had to be obtained at the state level. 
“The ordinance was the first step,” Carroll noted. “But then to be able to supplement it with the type of information that is provided through this mapping project, to help enforce the ordinance, is what the goal of the project is.”
On the Cainhoy peninsula, they also plan to document Nelliefield Creek Cemetery, another African American burial ground.
“In Cainhoy, we learned about the community’s commitment to stewarding the Nelliefield Creek Cemetery,” Carroll said. “Located in a remote, densely wooded area, we hope including this site and others like it as part of the mapping project will facilitate continued conversation about long-term maintenance and accessibility.”
Moving forward, Carroll, Oubré, Gilmore and others on the team will continue to meet with community members to gather input and then will invite them to review the draft map that is created. 
“In developing relationships with descendants and residents across the city, we’ve learned about the legacy of generational stewardship,” Carroll said. “Grassroots community activism has ensured the preservation of African American burial grounds that have largely been overlooked as the city has grown and changed.”
Walking among the gravesites at Cainhoy’s McDowell/Old Ruins Cemetery, Oubré remained hopeful the stories behind each soul buried here will be preserved and shared.
“Look at how many stories they get to pass down, from generation to generation,” she noted, pointing to a row of headstones. “This is generational wealth to me, not the money. The memories, the stories, and the history.”
For more information on the Mapping Charleston’s Black Burial Grounds Project, visit

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