Georgetown County graveyard goes to court; Damage to Campfield cemetery a mystery
CHOPPEE COMMUNITY -- A state court might finally solve the mystery of who - or what - destroyed gravesites in an African-American cemetery at Campfield Plantation, but archaeologists say the bigger issue of preserving culturally important cemeteries from the antebellum South is largely being ignored.
That is because most governments and developers take a reactive approach to preservation, said Michael Trinkley, director of the Columbia-based Chicora Foundation Inc.
"Instead of trying to identify cemeteries and working to preserve them, they wait until after problems occur," said Trinkley, whose foundation advocates for historic preservation. "They often have to deal with it after the damage has already been done."
Such is the case at Campfield Plantation, one of the former Black River rice plantations that once powered Georgetown County's economy. At its pre-Civil War peak, Campfield Plantation produced about 160 million pounds of rice each year.
Everyone agrees that something happened to damage the cemetery between 1974 - when descendants of those buried there say they were banned from the property - and five years ago, when those descendents discovered some graves were missing.
Descendents say the property's owners - who include the late nephew of billionaire philanthropist Doris Duke - either intentionally destroyed the graves or negligently allowed the destruction to take place. The descendents say they aren't certain of the motive, but believe the owners might have wanted to develop the property.
"Since all of this started, I have tried to speculate about why they wouldn't let us visit the cemetery and why they did what they did, and I just can't understand it," said Jackie Tucker, whose parents are buried at the cemetery. "What their motives were, I could not tell you."
The property owners say they are not to blame: The cemetery was partially destroyed when Hurricane Hugo blew through the area in September 1989.
"Hugo did extensive damage to the forest and trees at Campfield Plantation," said Wells Dickson, a Charleston lawyer who represents the property owners.
Many of the graves never were marked and Dickson said Hugo tore away some of the primitive grave markers - such as ribbons or nails hammered into a tree - that did exist, making it difficult to determine where graves might have been.
"The property doesn't look anything like it did when a cemetery was there," Dickson said. "The [descendants] have a legitimate concern in finding the graves of their families, but we do not believe that any desecration took place."
The descendents filed a civil lawsuit in 2008, accusing the property owners of negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The property owners - Victor "Butch" Deer and the late Walker Inman Jr., who spent most of his childhood living with Duke - have denied the allegations in court documents.
Inman died in February at the age of 57. Deer's wife referred all questions to Dickson.
The lawsuit appears to have gained momentum following an April 29 hearing in which 30 people were identified as having been buried at Campfield Plantation. Judge Steven John wants a list of all of the descendants of those buried at the cemetery by July 1, and a hearing to determine which descendents can take part in the class-action lawsuit is scheduled for the end of that month.
"We have to find a lot of people, but we don't have much time to do it," said Lisa Davis, a Surfside Beach lawyer who is representing the descendents.
No more mourning
The cemetery at Campfield Plantation was established in the late 1700s or early 1800s for slave families who worked at the plantation, according to a 1983 study published by Martha Zierden, curator of historical archaeology at The Charleston Museum.
The cemetery - which is located off Choppee Road - continued to be used by the area's black residents until 1974, when Tucker said the property's owners padlocked the gates and "told us we can't bury anyone there any more and we can't come back."
Tucker said she and her family were not allowed to visit their relatives' graves for the next three decades.
"We could see the cemetery from the road and we would stop at the gate, but it was always chained closed," Tucker said. "All we could do is stand by the fence and look."
Davis said no one visited the cemetery until 2005, when descendents started noticing construction vehicles entering the property and large plumes of smoke coming from near the cemetery site. The descendants, worried that the cemetery was being damaged, nominated Harry Lawrence - whose mother and father were buried there - to sneak onto the property and investigate.
"Mr. Lawrence saw that several of the tombstones he had remembered were no longer there," Davis said. "When he went to see his father's grave, the tombstone was no longer there. He went back and told the others that something had happened to the cemetery."
That announcement set off an intense investigation by archaeologists and the State Law Enforcement Division, which wanted to know if the disturbed gravesites were the result of a criminal act.
"Originally, there were allegations that people were digging up bones and having rituals, but nothing like that ever happened," said Pete Logan, a former SLED agent who investigated the case. No one was charged with a crime.
"We didn't find any evidence that anyone had intentionally desecrated the graves, and we worked on that case for a long time, probably a year," Logan said.
State archaeologist Jonathan Leader worked with SLED on its investigation and visited the site in early 2006. Leader said at the time it appeared some grave markers had been moved while others were pointed in the wrong direction or placed too close together.
Leader told The Sun News last week that several relatives told him about gravesites that no longer existed, but he could not independently verify their stories.
It was obvious some damage had been done to the cemetery, he said, but he saw no evidence that anyone purposely destroyed it.
"The real question is how much of the damage occurred during Hugo and during the cleanup process afterward," Leader said. "If it happened during the cleanup, it would not be malicious."
Davis said she isn't sure if the damage was malicious or the result of negligence. Either way, she said, the property owners were aware of the cemetery and should be held accountable.
"For them to say they didn't know where the cemetery was or how big it was, it just doesn't add up," she said.
Deer - who was Campfield Plantation's property manager during the 1980s and later bought the property from Inman in the late 1990s - had helped Zierden, the Charleston archaeologist, with the 1983 study in which the cemetery was identified. Zierden also took photographs of some of the gravesites at that time.
Zierden's study also included a 1943 U.S. Geological Survey map that showed the cemetery's location and a size ranging from 10,000 square feet to 20,000 square feet. Another map from 1946 - which was produced for Inman's father, who bought the plantation in 1935 - also showed the cemetery.
Today, the property owners say the cemetery is limited to an approximately 100-square-foot area, Davis said.
"They are adamant that the cemetery is not very large because the smaller you keep the cemetery, the more land there is for potential development," Davis said.
Deer also was in charge of the post-Hugo cleanup of Campfield Plantation, Davis said.
"He was well aware that the cemetery existed, then he let them do all the cleanup without telling anyone to watch out for the cemetery," Davis said. "He didn't take any steps to make sure that the cemetery was protected."
Dickson, the property owners' lawyer, said Deer has offered to fence off any other unmarked graves if relatives can show where they exist.
The destruction of old, African-American cemeteries often occurs because cultural differences make them difficult to identify and easy for developers to overlook, Trinkley said.
"African-American cemeteries are fairly isolated, often deep in the woods, and there's not much of a written track record to say what happened or who is buried where," said Trinkley, whose foundation specializes in the preservation of cemeteries. "They look very different from Euro-American cemeteries, and that frequently brings them in conflict with modern development."
Trinkley said graves in African-American cemeteries often are not arranged in a linear fashion, as they are in modern cemeteries. The graves often are unmarked or marked in a way that would not be recognized by someone not familiar with the culture. For example, some African-American graves are marked with shells, glass or household items - such as cups or bottles - that might be mistaken for debris.
The lack of identifiable markings means African-American cemeteries often are much larger than they first appear, Trinkley said, because there usually are more people buried without tombstones than with them.
"Another problem with African-America cemeteries is that they usually were never deeded to anyone," Trinkley said. "That leaves in limbo the ancestors' burial rights and their rights to visit."
Trinkley said he has been asked to be an expert witness in the Campfield Plantation case, but he has not yet been deposed by either side. Trinkley declined to talk specifically about that cemetery because of the pending litigation.
"I'd like to see a state agency, such as the Department of Archives and History, begin a statewide survey using a standardized form," he said. "I'd like to see counties work with that department to train volunteers to search out these burial grounds. Simply having the cemetery identified and recorded would provide an initial warning that a burial ground is present and needs further study if the property is to be developed."
Horry County has been surveying and cataloging old cemeteries for a couple of years to make sure they are protected. To date, county planners have put together a list of more than 400 cemeteries. Most counties, including Georgetown, do not have such a program and officials estimate there could be thousands of undocumented cemeteries statewide.
"We need to totally re-examine our cemetery laws, looking at issues of access, burial rights and other long-term preservation issues," Trinkley said, adding that the issue does not appear to be a priority for the state legislature. "Another decade of stumbling along may be necessary before anything of substance happens."