Enclosing Their Immortal Souls: A Survey of Two African American Cemeteries in Georgetown, South Carolina

By Brooks, Christina | Southeastern Archaeology, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Enclosing Their Immortal Souls: A Survey of Two African American Cemeteries in Georgetown, South Carolina


Brooks, Christina, Southeastern Archaeology


A cemetery survey was completed in July of 2009 at two African American cemeteries in coastal South Carolina. The objective of this research was to study above-ground artifacts and features in the cemeteries in an effort to better understand life and death for enslaved African and African American communities as evidenced through their mortuary practices. This paper seeks to explore the relationship among African American ideologies about death, cemetery landscape, and the symbolic nature of grave goods.

Introduction

Historic slave and African American cemeteries are commonplace features throughout the South Carolina coastal landscape. Coastal counties in South Carolina were unlike any other areas in the South in that slaves comprised the absolute majority of the population (Kovacik and Winberry 1987) (Figure 1). The early colonial economy of coastal South Carolina was largely rice production on large plantations (Kovacik and Winberry 1987). By 1730, 40,000 barrels (nearly 6 million pounds) of rice was being exported annually (Kovacik and Winberry 1987). In the latter half of the eighteenth century, Georgetown was the largest rice producing district in the colony (Kovacik and Winberry 1987). Due to the vast production of rice along coastal counties in South Carolina, particularly the Georgetown district, planters were eager to obtain slaves from traditional rice growing areas along the western coast of Africa (Wood 1975).

Many of these newly imported enslaved individuals from West Africa were immediately put to work in the rice fields upon arrival to America. Enslaved Africans on Hobcaw Barony plantations located along the Waccamaw River in Georgetown County, South Carolina, were no exception. Hobcaw Barony was made up of 14 individual rice plantations dependent on slave labor. In 1718 a colonial land grant was received for the acquisition of 12,000 acres (a barony) along the Waccamaw River (Linder 1995). Soon after the initial purchase of Hobcaw (meaning "land between the waters"), an additional 1,970 acres of adjacent land was purchased (Linder 1995). The land sat vacant and fallow until around 1767, when tracts of land were individually divided, purchased, and finally settled into separate plantations, which included Alderiey, Bellefield, and Marietta. Of the nearly 14,000 acres of land that made up Hobcaw Barony, nearly 3,000 acres of swamp land was converted into rice fields.

Enslaved Africans played an active role in Hobcaw's early history. According to reports, one plantation contained 128 slaves by 1790 (Linder 1995). By 1850, it is documented that nearly 1,200 enslaved Africans were working on two plantations alone (Alderley and Marietta) (Linder 1995). With the high number of enslaved Africans on just these few plantations, it is no wonder that enslaved African and African American cemeteries are hidden throughout the Hobcaw Barony landscape.

Why Cemetery Studies?

There are numerous interpretations of the African American experience based on archaeological excavations at plantations and freedman sites (Ascher and Fairbanks 1971; Babson 1990; Baker 1980; Fairbanks 1974, 1984; Ferguson 1992; Fountain 1995; Otto 1980; Russell 1997; Schuyler 1980; Young 1996). Individually, these types of excavations often do not offer a broad context for daily life. While plantation archaeology should not be ignored, other modes of archaeological information gathering on the African American experience should be included. It is evident that American slavery limited the ability of enslaved Africans to maintain their cultural identity through the Atlantic slave trade (Orser 1998). Burials, however, may be one area where enslaved Africans were afforded more "freedoms" and control. As a result, they are a unique resource with which to explore enslaved African and African American culture as defined by that population. Enslaved Africans and African Americans were often segregated in death as well as in life. …

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