Horry residents aim to protect graves near major development
The graves weren’t very far from each other, but they were drastically different.
In part of the informal and scattered cemetery was buried Harry Days, a black man of the first generation of Gullahs born in freedom, rather than slavery, in Horry County. His life was not easy and he had to cultivate and do other manual labor to make a living, said his great-great-granddaughter, Dr Veronica Gerald Floyd, but he was born free and cherished. Unlike other blacks buried in the area, Days’ grave had a gravestone, although its inscription has been faded by time and time and difficult to read.
Not far away, however, was John Green’s grave. Green married the daughter of Joshua John Ward, the owner of more slaves in the United States than anyone in the prewar south. Green, having married in immense wealth, had a large gravestone heavily engraved above his burial which extolled his virtues. Green, he said, was “an honest man, a good citizen, a loving husband and an exemplary Christian.”
Days and Green are buried in what may seem an unlikely location: near the 13th hole of the Blackmoor Golf Course in the Burgess Area, County of Southern Horry.
But it was the location of the men’s graves – along with dozens more, marked and unmarked – that raised serious concerns for black residents of Burgess. Long before the informal graveyard stood beside a golf course, it was part of Ward’s Plantation Collection, earning him the title ‘King of the Rice Planters’. The people enslaved by Ward buried their dead on the plantation, and later, after emancipation, the descendants of those once enslaved continued to bury their loved ones near other family members. Residents of the Burgess area say the practice continued into the 1960s in some families.
This means that today, along Blackmoor’s 13th Fairway, 100 or more people are buried, according to local historians and county technicians.
And residents of the community of Burgess fear that a planned major development nearby – 3,800 new homes on 706 acres – may inadvertently damage the graves, meaning pieces of black history in the area could be damaged or lost.
âMy main thing right now is to do something to protect these three cemeteries,â said Cad Holmes, a local historian who has ancestors buried in the cemeteries. âThis is where all of our ancestors are. They worked hard, they provided for our needs.
These concerns have sparked a local effort to protect historic cemeteries which some residents believe could be damaged by new development. Decisions on development and cemeteries will take place in 2022; the project must still be the subject of a new hearing before the town planning commission, as well as three hearings before the departmental council. The end of February is the earliest date the project could be approved.
And such approval could be difficult to obtain. Al Jordan, president of the Greater Burgess Community Association, said on Friday his group opposed the project, calling the plans “incomplete” and stressing concerns about the lack of infrastructure in the area. Other Burgess residents earlier this month said they were concerned about traffic jams and wrecks on SC 707, flooding and nearby schools that are already overcapacity.
And then there is the issue of cemeteries.
Holmes and others fear that the construction of new homes, apartment buildings, shops and parking lots on the nearby 706-acre lot will force additional stormwater into the area where the graves are located, damaging them. Horry County building standards require new homes to be built above flood levels, meaning a number of properties on the fully developed land could force water down into cemeteries, residents worry.
Part of that worry is due to the flatness of Horry County and the way the water flows. Near the Burgess region, for example, swamps, streams, the Waccamaw River, and the Intracoastal Waterway all come together to empty into Winyah Bay. But this water can only flow during low tides, about two or three hours a day, which means the area is full of swamps and wetlands. Burgess people like Holmes fear that changing this balance could flood cemeteries.
âI know we can’t stop the project, but they should come up with a plan that helps us,â Holmes said at a community meeting in Burgess on Tuesday. “They have to do something not to help us, to protect us, to protect us from further damage to the cemetery.”
A basic effort begins
Due to these fears that the cemeteries, believed to contain former slaves as well as generations of Burgess residents, the residents of Burgess began last week to ensure developers and the county protect the burial grounds.
With more than a dozen Burgess residents crammed into golf carts, Holmes led a caravan of graveyard-concerned people along the Blackmoor course to the 13th hole on Friday. Maps, showing ground-penetrating radar data, show three separate burial sites, all close together, along the 13th fairway. Using these maps, Holmes pointed to various burials, noting that many are unmarked because families ran out of money for gravestones. Several graves, Holmes said, have stainless steel lids to protect them from the elements.
Once residents arrived at the cemetery sites, they deployed, searching for marked graves and looking for clues that might point to unmarked graves. Radar data shows more than 100 graves between the three sites, although only about a dozen are marked. And of these, only a handful have gravestones.
On Friday, Lou Conklin, a senior planner with the Horry County Planning and Zoning Department, specializing in the preservation of graves and cemeteries, accompanied Holmes and the other residents. She said the developers of the 706-acre plot – near the corner of Salem Road and SC 707 – had found a recent burial at the site, but had yet to identify any others. County planners sometimes use ground-penetrating radar detection to find graves, although such an investigation has yet to be carried out at the planned development site. Some residents of Burgess are concerned that graves of former slaves may be found at the site.
Conklin explained on Friday that although South Carolina state law prohibits the destruction of a grave or cemetery, neither the state nor the county has strict requirements to ensure that burials do not not take place on land prior to the construction of a new construction. Typically, she said, developers or county planners will conduct a review of historical documents to find cemeteries or graves that are not marked, but no specific search method is required by the national or local law.
Simply because destroying cemeteries is illegal, she said. “That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.”
âThe developers call us sometimes and say, ‘Look, we know there’s a graveyard over there, do you know where it’s at? Can you rate it for us? And we tagged them and stuff like that, âConklin said. “I will try to do whatever I can to help people save cemeteries.”
Preserving Black History
At the Burgess community meeting on Tuesday, Holmes pitched the idea of ââbuilding a dike or some edge around the graveyard to keep water out, although it’s not yet clear whether the developers or county leaders will consider such an idea.
Still, Holmes and other members of the Burgess community insist that it is essential to keep the cemetery intact. Holmes even said he had seen part of it destroyed before, when he worked for Grand Strand Water & Sewer. During a job, he said, when Blackmoor’s course was first developed, he recalled seeing machines digging mounds of earth with strewn gravestones in them. He called the US Army Corp of Engineers, who put the project on hold, but the tombstones were eventually lost.
Other residents, as they inspected the cemetery, realized that they had great-great-grandparents or other relatives buried there. And for locals like Gerald Floyd, the cemetery offered a way to honor their ancestors. On Friday, she took her 18-year-old grandson, Cameron Davies, to see Days’ grave with her. Seeing the grave was so powerful, said Gerald Floyd, it seemed surreal.
â(See the grave) it’s good because I have worked for years to get to this day. Now to see the world truly recognize the importance of culture (gullah) is surreal, âsaid Gerald Floyd, professor emeritus at Coastal Carolina University. “It’s like I’m above, watching.”
Davies could only find one word to describe the sight of the grave: “Unbelievable,” he said. “It’s incredible.”
This story was originally published 20 December 2021 09:16.