Completed ground-penetrating radar testing of Clemson’s Woodland Cemetery has located more than 600 possible unmarked graves throughout much of the cemetery. Some are at the crest of the hill inside a fenced area, where members of the John C. Calhoun family were buried starting in 1837.
The number of graves coupled with the locations suggest the possibility that some may predate the period when the land was part of Calhoun’s Fort Hill Plantation from 1830 to 1865. Many of the graves are thought to be those of enslaved people who worked at the plantation and later as sharecroppers and Black laborers, including convicted individuals involved in the construction of Clemson College from 1890 to 1915.
Lawrence Conyers, a published authority on GPR and professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Denver, reviewed the methodologies of the team hired by Clemson to do the survey work and agreed with their interpretations. The University provided additional technical information to Conyers about soil and rock conditions on the site, as well as GPR readings taken recently for comparison at the African American cemetery at Hopewell, a known burial ground from that era approximately a mile away.
GPR work in late July initially revealed the possible locations of more than 200 unmarked graves in Woodland Cemetery believed to date back more than a century. Subsequent testing in other areas of the cemetery located additional possible grave sites primarily on the western, northwestern and northern slopes, as well as many in an area to the south and southeast previously identified as the “Site of Unknown Burials” and where the school installed fencing.
Clemson has installed additional signage at the cemetery, closed the area to vehicle traffic and restricted public access hours.
Rhondda Thomas, the Calhoun Lemon Professor of Literature at Clemson whose research and teaching focuses on early African American literature and culture, is working with the local African American community. She formed a Community Engagement Board with members representing the Clemson/Central, Anderson, Pendleton and Seneca areas to help guide Clemson in the preservation and memorialization of the site. She also is working with the local community to identify family members who may have ancestors buried in the unmarked graves.
University historian Paul Anderson leads the research work. His team’s findings are published to a website Clemson created to document the University’s role in Woodland Cemetery and give voice to the African Americans who are buried there.