The African American Cemetery

“The dead can only find rest at home with the ancestors.”

—Lowcountry saying with roots in Africa

The final resting place of at least 40 individuals, enslaved and free, Drayton Hall’s African-American Cemetery is one of the oldest documented African-American cemeteries in the nation still in use. The earliest surviving record describes its use as a “burying ground” and dates from about 1790, indicating this sacred ground may be even older. A century later, the cemetery was at the heart of a community of families—of small frame houses with swept dirt yards, vegetable gardens, outbuildings, and fields.

In keeping with the wishes of Richmond Bowens, a descendant of the enslaved at Drayton Hall, the cemetery has been “left natural,” not manicured or planted with grass or decorative shrubs. As he said, “Leave ’em rest.” Mr. Bowens was born at Drayton Hall in 1908, lived and worked at Drayton Hall on and off for over 50 years, including as gatekeeper and oral historian, and was buried here in 1998.

Marked and Unmarked Graves

Most of the graves are of Bowens family descendants—people whose family history stretches back three centuries in the history of South Carolina and the nation. According to custom, the graves are aligned in an east-west direction with the interred person facing east toward the rising sun. Families would identify their loved ones using plants, personal belongings, and other grave goods. Sadly, because these markers have long since deteriorated, fewer than ten graves have been identified; the depressions still visible in the ground are where the wooden coffins have collapsed over time.

 

Photo credit: John Apsey, The African-American Memorial at A Sacred Place, January 2014

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