Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Sunday Grave Trotting in Charleston!

In my College of Charleston class, "Beyond the Grave: What Old Cemeteries Tell and Teaching the Living," I needed to call a late semester audible. A few classes were wiped out by the busy hurricane season and I needed to get in some assignments.

Class Photo at the Unique Unitarian Churchyard
So I asked the students to come out on a late Sunday morning to visit a pair of old Charleston graveyards within walking distance of campus.

Unfortunately, less than half the class showed up. For my MIAs?  They missed out on a neat experience.

At Second Presbyterian Church on Meeting Street and the Unitarian Church on Archdale Street we not only had free reign to explore two very old graveyards (1811 and 1780s, respectively) that are normally closed weekdays. We also had the chance to speak to some church members and to go inside the beautiful Unitarian Church, which is Charleston's second oldest church. Only St. Michael's Episcopal is older.

This church dates all the way back to the Revolutionary War
I had never stepped foot inside the Unitarian Church, so that was a thrill, made even better by the fact that my students (and wife Alesia) got to see inside as well.

There were guided tours underway so we were truly in the right place at the right time.

We didn't participate in a full tour but did get in some questions.

Tyler and Kevin photographing gravesites
A key question with me was about the style of the graveyard, how it has seemingly been allowed to become overgrown with flora, or plant life.

Thick vegetation is throughout the Unitarian graveyard
The walk pathways are clear but many grave markers are barely visible amid the plants, shrubs, vines and trees.

Lovely artwork on this marker

It's definitely a unique place with a unique look.  I've never seen one quite like Unitarian in my years of grave trotting and exploration.

Another somewhat hidden grave treasure
It makes for a somewhat eerie beauty.

A nice docent explained to me that this is not a characteristic of all Unitarian Church graveyards.

Caroline Howard Gilman- the mind behind the graveyard

Rather, this was the vision of the wife of an early minister, Caroline Howard Gilman (1794-1888).

Her husband, Samuel, would be the minister at the Unitarian Church for nearly 40 years. The couple moved to Charleston after being married in Cambridge, Mass. in 1819.

It was Caroline who thought that this is the way the churchyard should look. She wanted a more natural appearance instead of a tightly manicured look to the space next to and behind the Gothic Revival church.

Here's a photo of Caroline Gilman with her minister husband Samuel. We found this in a display case inside the Unitarian Church.

Appropriately, the Gilman's grave marker (below) is one of Unitarian's most impressive.

The urn in the center is incsribed with "Our Pastor." And on the pedestal can be read "Beneath This Monument Rest The Mortal Remains Of The Rev. Samuel Gilman, D.D." (for Doctor of Divinity)

Gilman Monument- Monumental!
Unitarian Church on Archdale Street
Work on the church began in 1776, coinciding with the Revolutionary War. During the war the sanctuary would be occupied by American troops then British ones when they captured Charleston in 1781.

Back to nature appearance of this graveyard
The whole place is rich in history, inside and out.

It is said that the great American author and poet Edgar Allan Poe was influenced by the Unitarian graveyard in his classic poem "Annabel Lee."

Poe visited the graveyard while stationed with the U.S. Army at Fort Moultrie on Sullivans Island in the late 1820s.

Second Presbyterian Church 
On this pretty Sunday we also visited the graveyard at Second Presbyterian Church.

This big white structure with massive white columns opened just before the War of 1812 and is said to have in its graveyard a soldier who died during that war, the only grave in Charleston from that war.

We were unable to locate that particular grave after asking a few church members who were outside prior to their Sunday service.

I'll have to do some digging on that one.

Lots of old Charlestonians are interred here
The churcyard (or graveyard) here is more like others we have visited this semester: Bethel United Methodist, St. Patrick's Catholic, and Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul.

The students had two particular assignments on this day: to photograph and write about grave epitaphs and to find an "Old Charlestonian" that they can research and write about for another project.

These two old graveyards are rich with stories, I have no doubt.

One sharp-eyed student spotted this headstone at Unitarian, mentioning to me the inscription on it saying that the man buried here was a "kind master."

You do not often see in Charleton such direct references to slave owners. At the vast Victorian Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston, about which I have written two books, I have seen only two such references, one saying that the man was an "indulgent master."

"A kind Master" is inscribed in the middle 
Interred here is Col. Francis Dickinson (1772-1833). The "A kind Master" line is between "A faithful Friend" and "A worthy member of Society."

Using I have found several things about Dickinson. He was a planter (meaning he owned a plantation) and lived on Alexander Street in the Wraggborough part of Charleston.

Will found on 
Perhaps the real find on was his will.  Dated 1833, the year he died, it makes his longtime wife Rachel the executor of his estate. He left "my Gold Watch" to his son Jeremiah.

Then this part, that, to me, really brings history alive: "Thirdly, I Give devise and bequeath unto each of my Daughters Rachel and Sarah a Negro Girl Servant Maid, to be selected from among my negroes by their Mother and delivered when required."

Black people as the property of Whites to be sold and "bequeathed" to children, spelled out so clearly in an official document like this, is powerful stuff!

Headstone of Francis and Rachel Dickinson
My research on Colonel Dickinson has also included reaching out on Facebook to members of the specialty site, "Charleston History Before 1945."

My Facebook post last night has elicited some helpful suggestions and links, and also stirred a lively debate about slavery and the city's slaveholders.  I'm choosing to stay out of that, except to say, as I say to you, that Dickinson's will brings history to life, in terms of his passing down slaves to his daughters.

One member of this Facebook site shared this link that traces the family tree of Francis and Rachel Dickinson. Apparently, they lived in South Carolina's Upstate region. But it's not clear if that was before or while he also lived in Charleston. Perhaps that was where the plantation was located.

This "Old Pendleton District" name was used from the late 1700s to early 1800s. The previous link a shared in the above paragraph states that Dickinson was a lawyer.

Well, I'm now deep in the rabbit hole of research on these Dickinsons!  I'll share more when I learn more.
This morning I found that a Facebook Charleston History fellow follower put this on my Dickinson thread. It's a wedding announcement dated March 14, 1837 from the Charleston Courier. Francis and Rachel Dickinson's daughter Sarah married Dr. Lawrence Lee.  It notes the "late Col. Francis Dickinson" who unfortunately had died four years earlier.  

Our Sunday stroll was a success!  The students have done some fine work documenting many "Epic Epitaphs" they saw.

I'm looking forward to reading their "Old Charlestonian" blog posts in a few weeks.

More "fun" on the way for these young people as we will wrap up the semester on December 3 with a visit to the spooky Old Charleston Jail.

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