Drayton Hall Celebrates its African American Cemetery

If you've visited many historic sites in the South, you've probably noticed that until recently, the stories told at the region's house museums didn't vary much from Virginia to Louisiana. You remember the drill: Even when the house was hundreds of miles from the coast and stood directly atop a vein of superlative clay, the guides solemnly assured us that the bricks in its walls had come from England as ballast in the hold of a sailing ship. Every parlor, it seemed, had a dark stain on the floor where someone had bled to death after a duel, and every garden boasted a depression in the ground where the family silver had been buried to keep it out of the hands of marauding Yankee soldiers.

Awed by the platoons of mahogany chairs and gilt-framed mirrors that crowded the roped-off rooms, visitors could be forgiven for failing to notice that something was missing: evidence of the African American presence in these places. The men, women and children, slave and free alike, who had cleared the fields and built the houses, washed the clothes and cooked the meals, cared for the livestock and harvested the crops – the people who had, in short, kept the South's plantation economy running – had become invisible.

Here's the good news: Over the past few years, historic sites ranging from Colonial Williamsburg to George Washington's Mount Vernon and James Madison's Montpelier have reexamined and expanded their interpretive programs in an attempt to give visitors a broader, more accurate picture of African Americans' role in Southern life before and after the Civil War. One such effort at Drayton Hall, a National Trust Historic Site near Charleston, S.C., focuses on the plantation's African-American cemetery.

This burial ground is not a recent addition to the Drayton Hall landscape; in fact, it dates to the 1790s, making it one of the oldest such cemeteries still in use. Tucked into the woods beside the property's main road, the small cemetery is entered through a wrought-iron arch designed by the late master blacksmith Philip Simmons and fabricated by two of his protégés. Incorporating stylized images of chains and birds in flight, the arch is crowned with three words: "Leave 'Em Rest." Spoken by Richmond Bowens, a descendant of slaves who was buried here in 1998, the phrase provides a stunningly eloquent introduction – part welcome, part admonition – to the sun-striped clearing where some 40 graves have been identified thus far.

There are no carefully tended borders of boxwood or yew here, no marble angels or high-flown inscriptions. A commemorative sculpture entitled Sentinel stands half-hidden among the trees, its slender cedar poles intended to evoke traditional wooden grave markers found in Africa. There's a bench to sit on and a couple of interpretive panels to read. A few modest gravestones stand here and there, but most burial sites are indicated only by shallow depressions in the leaf-paved ground. That's all – and yet there is much more.

To describe the Drayton Hall cemetery as "peaceful" is to miss the complexity that is revealed by thoughtful examination of what the place represents. Among the people buried here, some doubtless were brought to South Carolina against their will, brought to this plantation to endure a lifetime of labor in a place far from home. Others, born generations later, grew up here in a tight-knit community of friends and kin, then moved away and lived elsewhere for years or decades before finally returning to Drayton Hall – their home – to rest. All of them, by their silent presence together in this tranquil clearing in the woods, tell a story of the African American experience with a compelling power that words on a page and artifacts in a display case rarely achieve.  

At Drayton Hall, several exemplary interpretive programs introduce visitors to various aspects of African American life in this little corner of the Carolina Lowcountry. The cemetery is an important part of that effort because of the unique opportunity it offers. Speaking at last year's cemetery dedication, Lonnie Bunch, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, pointed out that there is much to be learned from "what a country chooses to forget." Noting that "the story of the enslaved and their descendants is … shrouded by the mists of forgetfulness," he described the cemetery as a place that "allows us to pierce this mist with the sunshine of remembering."

That wonderful phrase – "the sunshine of remembering" – goes to the heart of what the cemetery is all about and why it matters. The people who rest here, whether slaves or free people, played key roles in building and sustaining Drayton Hall and South Carolina and the United States. They had names and histories, and they don't deserve the indignity of invisibility. The cemetery allows us – even forces us – to remember that they lived.

For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.

Subscribe to the Today's News RSS feed