A Sacred Place: Drayton Hall’s African Burial Ground
Circa 1738, Drayton Hall began with the purchase of an advertised 350-acre tract along the banks of the Ashley River amongst other prominent Carolinians and their plantations. Envisioned by the 23-year-old John Drayton (1715-1779), Drayton Hall served as his family’s home-seat, both a primary residence and management center for his vast plantation network spanning the colonies of South Carolina and Georgia, and growing to more than 76,000 acres. The ability of these Drayton plantations to be successful in indigo, rice, and cattle was dependent upon the herculean effort of the enslaved people brought from Africa. The total number of enslaved people residing on the numerous plantations within Drayton’s plantation network, and over multiple Drayton generations, is currently unknown. Although the numbers are unknown, evidence of their existence can still be seen on the Lowcountry landscape. At Drayton Hall the most dynamic testament of their presence is their burial ground, known today as A Sacred Place: the African American Cemetery.
The final resting place of an untold number of enslaved Africans and their descendents, the burial ground was possibly first used by the enslaved people that pre-existed Drayton Hall and continued into the twentieth century. The first documentary record of the burial ground is a map simply labeled “B G Field 10 acres” likely drafted by Charles Drayton around 1790. Oral histories from descendents of those who chose to remain at Drayton Hall after the American Civil War explain the traditions and practices of the burial ground.
The freedmen after the Civil War worked for the mining companies that mined phosphate at Drayton Hall. One of the descendents was Richmond Herschel Bowens, Jr. (1908-1998). He was born to Richmond and Anna Bowens on September 2, 1908, at Drayton Hall. Bowens was raised on the former plantation; his ability to remember the property and the people was uncanny. His recollections, beginning around 1918, detail many aspects of life for the African American community at Drayton Hall before the Second World War.
On February 24, 1997, less than two years before his own passing and interment at Drayton Hall, Bowens recounted and reflected on the cemetery. His first recollection of the cemetery at Drayton Hall was the burial of his father, who died when Bowens was 12 years old. As he recalled the burial and funeral, he also included the memories of other burials at Drayton Hall. He recounted that the deceased’s body was, first, cleaned and dressed in the fashion deemed appropriate by the family, typically handled by neighbors and community members. The body remained in the household for a few days, with family and community members visiting and staying up, or “sits up” as referenced by Bowens, with the body until it was time for burial. A similar account was entered by Charles Drayton, I, into his diary on September 14, 1800, that Dumplin, the Drayton cook, has stayed out late “sitting up… with the corpse…” of Jack, noted by Charles Drayton as being his faithful groom. This tradition is noted by numerous historians as coming from Africa and being maintained throughout the generations.
The funeral service described by Bowens consisted of scripture readings, and a “dismissal” of the deceased from their household and the land. The body having been placed in the casket is then placed in the grave. Each grave was dug on an east-west axis allowing the deceased to face east toward the rising sun, which followed the traditions of earlier burials at Drayton Hall. With the casket placed in the grave, dirt is placed back into the grave bringing the dirt above grade to protect the grave from puddling rain water. The gravesite, typically, received markers cut from a smaller-diameter tree. The markers would remain round, unmarked, and be placed at both the head and the foot, with the foot marker being shorter than the head marker. It was also customary to place objects that the deceased cherished atop the gravesite, known as “dressing a grave.” Another commonly supported Africanism is the placement of objects, or “grave goods,” on gravesites to identify the occupation and status of the deceased, proclaiming the life enjoyed. In the case of Bowens’ father, the family placed his barbering tools, clippers, razor, hairbrush, and comb, from his work as a community barber. They placed a name tag given to the family by the Dr. D. P. Ordway Plaster Company on the gravesite as Bowens’ father worked as a sales agent for the medicinal plaster company. A mustache cup with saucer was also placed on the gravesite as Bowens recalled, saying his father drank his tea, not liking coffee, from a mustache cup. The cup had a guard to keep a heavy mustache from getting into the drink while drinking. Bowens also recalled his mother’s grave receiving cockle-wares, a vase with flowers, and the tools of a seamstress.
The completion of the burial and funeral service did not mark the end of remembrance of the deceased. In fact it was always customary for those buried at Drayton Hall to have a second “sermon” or service held six months to a year after the burial in remembrance of them.
In recent years, Drayton Hall, a historic site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has been participating in remembering with the descendents of those buried on the property. On the 100th anniversary of Richmond Bowens’ birth, a ceremony and celebration was held, entitled, Ways of Remembering: Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Richmond Bowens, 1908-1998. It in turn led to the erection and dedication of the African American Memorial Archway at the path leading into the cemetery to commemorate all those interred at Drayton Hall.
When you enter this place remember that it is sacred. Also, remember that it is left in a natural state, per the wishes of descendents, to maintain a peaceful rest for all those known and unknown in this burial ground.
Circa 1738, Drayton Hall is the oldest unrestored plantation house in America still open to the public and the nation’s earliest example of fully executed Palladian architecture. Never modernized with electric lighting, plumbing, or central heating or air conditioning, the main house is unfurnished, allowing the beauty of the original architectural details to become the focus for visitors. Admission includes daily tours and programs. For more info, call 843-769-2600 or visit www.draytonhall.org.