Georgetown County and partners throughout the community will gather together this weekend for a ceremony to reinter the remains of enslaved African-Americans who were once laid to rest at Hagley Plantation. The ceremony, to take place at Holy Cross Faith Memorial Church cemetery in Litchfield, will be open to anyone who would like to pay their respects at this important and historic event. It is set for 3 p.m. on Pentecostal Sunday, May 23.
The remains of these African-American individuals have been linked as ancestors of the county’s Gullah-Geechee community.
“The names of these individuals and the full stories of their lives are unknown. But they are not forgotten,” said Angela Christian, Georgetown County Administrator. “It’s time to lay them to rest again, with all the dignity and respect they deserve.”
The remains are believed to have originally been laid to rest at the cemetery at St. Mary’s Chapel, which once stood on the grounds of Hagley Plantation, where it was constructed for the African-Americans enslaved there. The original graves were unearthed during residential construction in 2006 and, as a result, were unfortunately commingled. At that point, they were turned over to the Georgetown County Coroner’s Office. The coroner at the time, Kenny Johnson, requested assistance from a forensic anthropologist, Richland County Deputy Coroner William Stevens, Ph.D., in analyzing the remains.
In early 2007, Stevens transported the remains to the Biological Anthropology Laboratory at the University of South Carolina for further study. He conducted extensive research over a period of years to determine their origin. It was believed that all individuals buried at St. Mary’s had been previously relocated. The funeral home contracted for that duty had been long closed and the funeral director had passed away, so further information on the relocation was unavailable. However, the location where the remains were discovered, as well as their age and genetic information obtained from them, led Stevens to conclude the remains had indeed originated at St. Mary’s and belonged to African-Americans who were enslaved at Hagley to work the rice fields there prior to the Civil War. As part of his research, Stevens also contacted descendants of the individuals after genetic analysis was complete.
Stevens will also be present at the ceremony and will speak briefly on the findings of his extensive research on the remains. According to the research he presented to the Georgetown County Coroner’s Office, the cemetery where the remains were originally located was bulldozed by unknown parties in the 1970s. It was located about 400 feet southeast of Hagley Landing on the Waccamaw River. St. Mary’s Chapel was one of 13 chapels constructed in the area for use by enslaved people and was noted to have been of “unusually pleasing design and furnishings.” As noted in Stevens’ report, “the ceiling and pews were of cypress, with stained glass windows and Gothic arches adding to the dignity of this chapel high above the Waccamaw River.” St. Mary’s fell into disuse in the early years of the 20th century and burned in July of 1931.
The church was believed to have been constructed in 1859 by an enslaved man named Renty Tucker, but it is likely the cemetery dates back farther, according to Stevens. Study of the remains indicated they likely belonged to enslaved people forced to work the rice fields. They would have “endured great hardship [including] heavy disease burden, poor nutrition and inhumane conditions of forced labor.”
After the hardships of slavery and struggles these individuals endured throughout their lives on Hagley Plantation, it is time to lay them to rest a final time and honor them as ancestors of our area’s Gullah-Geechee descendants.
CDC guidelines suggest masks are optional for fully vaccinated people at this event. Due to limited parking availability, attendees may park at Holy Cross Faith Memorial Church. The Georgetown County Sheriff's Office will be on hand to stop traffic and allow attendees to cross the street en masse at 2:50 p.m., as well as after the ceremony. Seating will be limited, so attendees may want to bring a chair.