Talk about grave marker for Hagley people continues 2 years later
The grass that has grown up around the grave sways in rhythm with the traffic that passes on Highway 17. Below the soil are the remains of 22 people of African descent that were laid to rest 15 years after they had been exposed during construction of a home on the site of the former chapel at Hagley Plantation.
Two years after a reburial service that drew about 150 people to the cemetery at Holy Cross-Faith Memorial Episcopal Church, a hand-painted marker stands at the head of the grave. Angela Christian hopes to restart discussions about a permanent marker.
“It’s still a little wooden sign,” she said. “That is my summer project. I would love to get it done before then.
Christian, the Georgetown County administrator, organized the effort that led to the reburial. The 300 bones had been turned over to the coroner’s office after they were discovered in 2006. They were sent to Columbia, where Bill Stevens, a forensic anthropologist and a deputy coroner for Richland County, used DNA analysis to try to locate possible descendants.
Stevens’ research also showed that the people were enslaved workers on the rice plantation and had been buried from the 1840s through the 1860s. It was thought that the cemetery had been moved in the 1970s before Hagley was developed. It turned out only the markers had been removed.
Kenny Johnson, the former Georgetown County coroner, tried to contact descendants and arrange a reburial over the intervening year, but without success.
“They had a tough, hard life. It’s important to know these people made us who we are,” Johnson said on the eve of the reburial.
That message is still important, said Zenobia Harper, founder of the Gullah Preservation Society, who took part in the ceremony and its planning.
There is a need, she said, “to shed light on those lives and all the other people.” Records show there were 334 enslaved people at Hagley on the eve of the Civil War.
There have been several ideas about what sort of marker would be appropriate, including suggestions for a marble slab and a sculpture, Christian said.
“There’s been some hesitation,” she said. “That’s been my hesitation.”
Marilyn Hemingway, founder and CEO of the Gullah-Geechee Chamber of Commerce, said the passage of time isn’t a sign of disrespect, but of deliberation.
“It’s a big deal. We must approach this with respect and thoughtfulness,” she said. “You want people to understand the history and culture surrounding it.”
Hemingway and Harper agree that the story of the 22 people, told through their DNA and their journey to a final resting place, is an opportunity to educate.
It isn’t about the marker, it’s about the story, Harper said.
“I’m happy that there’s some kind of marker,” she said, but added “this is not a short and sweet thing. It’s a wonderful opportunity to tell the story.”
The Rev. Wil Keith, rector of Holy Cross-Faith Memorial, was also involved in the ceremony and earlier discussions about the marker.
“I don’t feel any need to rush,” he said. “We’re telling the story here” to visitors and parishioners.
Harper would like to see more involvement from descendents of the 22 people, who are likely to be those in the Marysville community near St. Mary’s AME Church, according to researchers.
“There’s all this stuff that could lead us to have a better understanding,” she said.
That is going on in other places, said Hemingway, whose organization works in four states.
“These discussions are happening every day,” she said. “It’s honoring the family and the culture, and it’s a learning tool.”
Christian has talked with individuals about a marker, but said “they’re probably waiting on me” to reconvene a group discussion.
The dead are at peace and in no hurry, Keith said.
“It is at least as much about us as these folks,” he said. “We shouldn’t forget that all of this is much more a reflection of who we are.”
A cemetery is an appropriate place to ponder those issues, Keith added.