Clemson students and professors aid a local black community in preserving their heritage for future generations
By Darlene Fuhst
College of Business and Behavioral Science
The modest church perches on top of a ridge that offers commanding views of the surrounding valley. Table Rock and the mountains of North Carolina are clearly visible in the distance. To the left of the church a large outcropping of soapstone boulders creates a natural platform from which to survey the area. Next to the church are a simple wooden one-room schoolhouse and a small, neatly landscaped graveyard with a scattering of granite headstones adorned with colorful flowers. The area immediately surrounding the church covers little more than an acre.
Today, it seems absurd that anyone would ever think this land “unfit,” but that is precisely the reason 900 freed slaves settled the area less than 130 years ago. Their former masters did not want to give up what was considered prime farmland near the main towns and roads, so they forced the former slaves to the outlying areas. There the freed slaves formed the Liberia community, named in honor of the African nation founded by freed slaves. Liberia lays claim to the first black church and the first black school in Upstate South Carolina. The school closed many years ago, but the church is still home to a small but dedicated congregation.
A short distance away along a pitted dirt road is a site that piqued the interest of Clemson anthropology professor Mike Coggeshall and moved him to become actively involved in efforts to document and preserve the history of the Liberia community. What appears at first glance to be an abandoned wooded lot is in fact the slave cemetery, containing an unknown number of graves.
On a recent Saturday, members of the student Clemson Anthropology Club raked back leaves and tree limbs and looked for impressions, headstones and any other indications of possible graves. They flagged the gravesites, measured the area and compiled a sketch map of the cemetery in an effort to begin the site’s documentation and preservation.
“Being able to use our skills in the local community really means a lot to me, more than going to an excavation in another country. Professor Coggeshall has been working with this community for years, and you can tell when he talks about this place that the families here mean a great deal to him. I was proud to be able to help,” said Club President Kevin Kinross, a sociology major from Fort Mill.
Mike and Mable
A few years ago Coggeshall was taking a drive around the area as part of a larger research project on mountain cultures and happened upon Soapstone Church. As a cultural anthropologist — which means he is interested in all types of people — Coggeshall was immediately curious about the area and its history. He started investigating the site and in short order was greeted by a woman who regarded him with some suspicion, wanting to know who he was and what he was doing there.
Mable Owens Clarke is the last living descendant of the original families. Clarke grew up in Liberia, and her great-grandfather founded Soapstone Church. Her mother and father — who both lived more than 100 years — are buried in the churchyard. Clarke attended school in the one-room schoolhouse until she was in the fifth grade. After that the local children were bussed to Easley. Segregation was still in effect. “We passed three white schools on the way to the black school,” Clarke said.
Coggeshall and Clarke struck up a friendship, and through the past several years they have worked together to document in book form the oral history of the area and the families who founded it. Clarke is dedicated to preserving the Liberia community – specifically the slave cemetery – and is working to get the site registered as a historic landmark. So far she has been successful in getting it listed on the South Carolina Heritage Corridor, a first step toward achieving landmark status. She and Coggeshall hope that by preserving and interpreting the site they can highlight the historical and cultural significance of the area.
Pickens County recently granted a small sum of money to the community to install a fence around the cemetery to help protect it from vandalism. The problem is that there are very few traditional headstones; in many cases graves are marked with uncut boulders or not at all. Mourners etched simple markings onto some of the stones, but because soapstone is a relatively soft material many of the etchings have washed away, leaving little to no information about those buried there. These factors contribute to the difficulty of discerning where the actual boundary of the cemetery lies.
Gaining Knowledge Through Practice
Coggeshall saw the opportunity to help the community while also providing a chance for students to gain valuable hands-on experience in the field. He asked fellow faculty members Melissa Vogel and Katherine “Katy” Weisensee, both of whom have extensive field experience, to supervise the project. They recruited Clemson Anthropology Club members to carry out the task of cleaning and mapping the cemetery.
Coggeshall said that valuable anthropological information can be gleaned from the efforts.
“By mapping the location of the graves and noting any that still have visible markings, we hope to be able to discern patterns in the cemetery – family clusters and so on – that can aid us in identifying who is buried there.”
Sociology major Caroline Cornish, from Redding, Conn., was thrilled to participate. “I leapt at the opportunity to put my anthropological skills to work. Plus once you are out here you really want to help these people have some recognition and respect for what they went through.”
Kinross does not expect the anthropology club’s involvement to be this one-time event.
“I think there is still a lot we can learn and a lot we can do,” he said. “I plan to volunteer with the installation of the fence, and I think the other members of the club feel the same and want to continue to contribute and serve this community.”
And Coggeshall is thrilled with the students’ work.
“I am so proud of the students. They immediately set to work, followed all directions unflinchingly, never slacked off, and helped each other. They were professional, eager, patient and good-humored the entire time,” he said. “It was especially gratifying to me to see them hovering around Katy and Melissa, drinking in every word, and really wanting to learn how to map and measure and document. They knew this was important to me and to the community, and they approached their tasks with superb professionalism.”
Church members, friends of the community and Clarke herself support the University’s contributions. Clarke in particular hopes preservation efforts will give voice to the voiceless and is eager to facilitate the documentation of her heritage.
“Those graves that you see out there in the cemetery – I really just want to give those slaves the dignity they so well deserve. So, any light that can be shined on the cemetery … I can see those people in those graves just smiling and saying, ‘thank you.’”