South Carolina State Hospital
Columbia, Richland County, SC

by Michael Trinkley, Ph.D., RPA
Director, Chicora Foundation, Inc.


Chicora Foundation is a public, non-profit heritage preservation organization with an 18-year record of working to document and protect the historic sites and archaeology of South Carolina. I, personally, have been involved in archaeological and historic research for over 25 years, including nine years as senior archaeologist with the S.C. Highway Department. One area of particular concern to both Chicora and me is the preservation of our state's cemeteries. We have been involved in the mapping and recordation of dozens of graveyards and burial sites and I have served as an expert witness in three court cases concerning cemetery preservation.

On January 11 of this year I read an article in The State entitled, "Graves on Golf Course Site Concern Officials." It reported that the City of Columbia's golf course on Slighs Avenue was being built on top of the graves of patients of the S.C. State Hospital.

I immediately wrote both the Mayor of Columbia, Bob Coble, as well as all City Council members, informing them that their undertaking was likely in violation of Section 16-17-600 of the Code of Laws of South Carolina, 1979, as amended (Destruction or desecration of human remains or repositories thereof), and asking that the project be suspended until a more detailed investigation could be conducted.

We immediately began detailed research on the property, finding that it served as the cemetery for the S.C. State Hospital starting about 1909 (when it was known in the records as the "Farm Cemetery" or the "Colored Asylum Cemetery"). It was used for the hospital's African American patients. The cemetery continued in use at least until African American patients began to be transferred to the newly opened hospital at State Park ca. 1923. We have examined the death certificates from 1915 through about 1921, identifying over 800 African Americans buried in this cemetery. Death certificates were not mandated before 1915; records of burials before this date may be in restricted files of the S.C. State Hospital, but these have not been opened to us.

Based on the per month death rate, the Slighs Avenue Cemetery may contain at least 1,400 burials and potentially as many as 2,000.

We also found that the cemetery was clearly shown on a number of maps and plats, including a map prepared during a legislative investigation of the State Hospital in 1909, a plat of S.C. State Hospital property prepared in 1921 , and a city map from 1945.

More importantly, the cemetery was referenced in a 1974 deed transferring the property from the SC Department of Mental Health to the SC Budget and Control Board (Richland County Clerk of Court, DB 327, pg. 195). This deed makes reference to the 1921 plat. In 1983 the City of Columbia used this cemetery for the reburial of individuals moved from the area of the Broad River pauper's cemetery to make way for the City's railroad relocation project.

In March 2000 City of Columbia surveyors made a plat of the property, showing the cemetery in the same location as all previous maps and indicating that it encompassed 3.56 acres (previous plats indicated 3.6 acres). In May 2000 the Budget and Control Board transferred the property acquired from the SC Department of Mental Health, including the cemetery, to the City of Columbia using a Limited Warranty Deed and referencing the City's plat.

It is clear from this chain of events that the City of Columbia was well aware of the cemetery and its location.

By the time I visited the cemetery immediately after the newspaper article of January 11 the area had already been cleared of trees (it was previously in dense woods, based on aerial photography and the accounts of neighbors), the tree roots grubbed out, and the area graded. I discovered that a large sprinkler system had been installed. Still open was one area of the controls for this system situated on the graveyard where the excavation was at least 4 feet in depth and 5 feet in diameter. I also discovered two monuments which had been knocked over by the construction and had been laying flat on the ground.

I immediately wrote a second letter to both the Mayor and City Council pointing out our research, including our discovery that the City had full knowledge of the cemetery, and again asking that State law concerning cemeteries be followed. I called for the project to be terminated and moved elsewhere or for the graves to be moved. The only response I have received is a form letter from the Mayor.

The City of Columbia has refused to suspend work on this project or to follow state law in dealing with human remains.

The individuals buried at this site were wards of the State of South Carolina and were buried on state property. We believe that they deserve better treatment than they are receiving at the hands of the City of Columbia. Most fundamentally, if a government entity refuses to abide by the laws of our State, who will? If a government entity believes it is above the law, who can stop them? And if a government entity decides what laws to obey and which to ignore, how can we expect private citizens to be any more respectful? In other words, I am only asking that the City of Columbia be held to the same standards as any citizen of South Carolina and that those buried there be given the respect they deserve under the laws of our State.

Attached are several photographs of the cemetery, several maps or plats, and an Excel file with the first ca. 400 names. Also attached is a list of individuals who should be contacted if those reading this would like to express their outrage that the City of Columbia bulldozes African American cemeteries for their newest tourism draw -- "golfing on graves."




UPDATE 10 MAR 2001


8 Mar 2001 | 13 Mar 2001
Copyright © 2001. All rights reserved.
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