A few days before Easter Sunday, Cainhoy peninsula resident MaeRe Chandler Skinner walked through the grass at the Old Ruins Cemetery with her eyes to the hallowed ground beneath her feet.
“The lilies keep coming up,” she said, stepping around a cluster of tiny white flowers. “Those were probably planted a hundred years ago.”
Behind her are the brick ruins of the old Cainhoy Meeting House, built in the late 1690s to serve as a gathering place for Dissenters who came down from New England to escape religious persecution. It was later used as a hospital for American soldiers during the
Revolutionary War, some of whom were likely laid to rest here. The burial ground originally served as a White cemetery, its oldest grave dating back to 1762. Skinner’s ties to the site go back five generations.
“There is my great grandfather, Thomas Wagner Chandler,” Skinner noted, pointing to a row of tombstones. “He was the magistrate of Cainhoy.”
She has been helping to care for this sacred place for almost as long as she can remember, first with her father during his lifetime and later taking over the reins herself upon his death in 2006. Skinner now serves as chair of the entity that owns the parcel – the Cainhoy Methodist Church and Cemetery Old Ruins Corp.
“I love the history up here,” she said.
On a recent visit to the property, also known as McDowell Cemetery, she was joined by her longtime friend and fellow Cainhoy area advocate Fred Lincoln. Both have worked tirelessly over the years to see areas like this protected and preserved. Just outside the cemetery’s fenced borders are several marked and unmarked African American graves, some from the 1800s. The encroaching Oak Bluff neighborhood, located adjacent to the burial grounds, is elevating their concerns.
Built by Crescent Homes, the new subdivision is made up of multiple occupied homes, with more in the pipeline. The developer, Oak Bluff Development LLC, bought up much of the property surrounding the cemetery in 2015 to construct the neighborhood.
Although the Old Ruins corporation owns the cemetery land itself, the area just outside its fence, including a buffer where a cluster of known African American graves are located, is private property owned by the developer. Currently overgrown and difficult to access, the buffer is not slated for development – but new homesites are planned just a short distance away.
According to Skinner, as part of the deed requirements on the property, Oak Bluff is obligated to replace the existing Old Ruins Cemetery fence, which was erected some 30 years ago, with a new black, 6-foot aluminum fence, as well as a new gate. That has yet to happen, but when it does both Skinner and Lincoln would like to see the two burial grounds joined together.
“What we want to do is connect them,” Lincoln said. “... And put them under the same protections as we go forward ... This would reflect the time of what’s going on today, rather than what happened then (when Whites and Blacks were buried in separate cemeteries).”
There is still much unknown about who is buried here and in the surrounding area. The property is steeped in history, according to several archaeological reports conducted over the years, with evidence of prehistoric and Native American life. Skinner and Lincoln have been working with Grant Mishoe, genealogist and forensic historian for The Gullah Society, to learn more. Using ground penetrating radar (GPR), Mishoe has discovered dozens of “anomalies,” both inside the cemetery and out, that indicate the potential of undocumented human remains.
“You do (GPR) to find out where the anomaly is,” Mishoe explained. “And then you have to dig it, or prod it ... and identify it.”
Mishoe has left tiny blue flag pins scattered throughout the one-acre property to denote where unmarked graves likely are located. Some of the pins have been placed outside the cemetery’s front gate, in the area currently used as the driveway or access road to the property. Mishoe believes his discoveries are affirmation the burials extend beyond the cemetery’s fenced borders and the documented African American burial ground, potentially in the path of planned homesites.
“There is a pretty good possibility that there are people buried there,” Mishoe added. “... Lots of times people died and (families) didn’t even report it to the coroner, and they would just bury them. It happened all the time in the
He also has new information about multiple deaths in the cemetery, much of which was provided by individuals who signed affidavits that family members are known to be buried in the area. The numbers Mishoe has tallied far exceed known gravesites. It is also possible that some of the newly discovered “anomalies” could be an extended part of the main cemetery, he said.
“We just don’t know. There was no fencing or anything like that (when the burials took place). We won’t know what’s out there until there is proper ground penetrating radar.”
Thus far, Oak Bluff Development LLC has not permitted them to study the areas outside of the cemetery, as it is private property. But Skinner, Lincoln and others are pressing them to do so.
The Preservation Society of Charleston sent a letter to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) on March 10 to indicate they are “deeply concerned by an outstanding permit request for Phase IC of the Oak Bluff Cluster Development.”
“... This development poses a direct threat to an unmarked African American burial ground in the vicinity of the McDowell Cemetery,” wrote Brian Turner, director of advocacy for the Preservation Society.
Turner has also reached out to staff members at the City of Charleston to enlist their help in the matter. Among his requests was that the city suggest the developer conduct GPR studies outside the cemetery borders, to include the area where the new construction is slated to occur. According to Turner, the city notified him that they did make the suggestion to the developer, but they have no legal teeth to require the developer to follow through.
“I think the fact that the city doesn’t have anything that they can do to require somebody with a known burial ground to take any proactive steps to avoid impacts is just shocking,” Turner added.
Additionally, a preliminary plan indicates that the new construction would eliminate the current ingress and egress for the cemetery site from Clements Ferry Road, a separate access that is protected in the cemetery’s deed, noted Skinner. According to the developer’s plans, it appears a new easement would be provided through the neighborhood. But Skinner fears it will be inadequate.
“We bring lawn equipment in here,” she said. “And now we’ve got all these (potential) graves showing up, and periodically there is a funeral in here. Where is everybody going to park?”
When asked to comment on the issues raised by Skinner and others, the developer stated on April 7 that they have followed all permitting guidelines as required by the City of Charleston and DHEC for the Oak Bluff community.
“The permitting process took over three years and included an extensive archeological study of the site,” noted Bob Pickard, vice president of land development for Crescent Homes, Oak Bluff Development LLC. “This study was incorporated into the site design to ensure there were no adverse impacts to sensitive areas, including burial sites. The plans were reviewed and approved by multiple agencies, and their relevant departments, including the State Historical Preservation Office (SHPO). Oak Bluff Development, LLC has been a good faith partner in this process and stands by its commitment to develop this site responsibly and in accordance with applicable regulations.”
While Turner called the developer’s commitment to proceed according to applicable regulations “laudable,” he believes more is needed.
“If Oak Bluff can prove it has done thorough documentation of the burial ground and developed its site plans in a way responsive to this research that would be commendable,” he added. “But from all we can tell at this stage that hasn’t been done.”
The cemetery’s advocates also include Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, who sent off a letter to Dr. Edward Simmer at DHEC on April 15 expressing concern over the developer’s new permit request, urging him to “take the utmost care in ensuring that these human remains continue to be protected so that the families of those lost may continue to grieve in peace.”
According to Charleston City Councilwoman Marie Delcioppo, whose district includes much of the Clements Ferry Road corridor, “due care” needs to be taken with regards to this property.
“MaeRe, Fred, and others whose families have called Cainhoy home for generations are right to want to preserve their community, and it is incumbent on us who are in positions to help residents, our community, and our overall quality of life – which includes honoring past, present, and future – to do so,” she said. “You do not have to live in the area to understand the significance Cainhoy has played in the Lowcountry’s history dating back to Native American settlements ... We need to have an expectation that when we have a cemetery of this age, there will be remains outside the cemetery’s defined border.”
If construction moves forward before additional studies are conducted and human remains are discovered, the developer is obligated by law to pause all work and report their findings to the county coroner, State Historic Preservation Office and other entities – or face prosecution and fines.
“Ideally, eyes will be on the developer,” Turner said “... They have not done an exhaustive cultural resources inventory of this element of the property and I think we are in this race against time to say, ‘Hey, you are aware of this and please take heed.’ It would be great if they came to the table, even though they don’t technically feel like they have to under the law.”