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Historic Slave Cemetery Saved From Neglect

Published: May 18, 2013

Historic Slave Cemetery Saved From Neglect

Community dedicates slave cemetery found at Soapstone Baptist Church.

By Jason Evans – Easley Patch

Community members came together Monday to celebrate the completion of an effort to preserve an important, and nearly lost, part of Pickens County History

They came together to dedicate the Old Soapstone Church Cemetery.

The cemetery houses the graves of slaves and former slaves from the area.

Soapstone Baptist Church in Pumpkintown has been a part of Mable Clarke all her life, but it wasn't until four years ago that she discovered an important part of the church and the Liberia community.

A surveyor working on the church property came to Clarke's nearby home.

“He asked me to come to the woods, that he had found some graves he thought I need to know about,” Clarke said.

“As I made that journey from my home here, walked through the thicket and really kind of crawled my way in to find the graves that were so buried here,” Clarke said.

When she left the woods that day, her soul “would not rest,” she said.

“God spoke to me and we wrestled with this for many, many weeks,” Clarke said. “He kept coming back with the answer, 'Somebody needs to be a voice. Somebody's got to be a voice.'”

She said she'd grown up hearing her elders talk about “the courageous and hardworking men, women and the babies buried in this cemetery.”

“For too long, they have laid here peacefully – but so forgotten,” Clarke said. “Hidden beneath a shroud of trees and brush.”

Many of Monday's speakers talked of Mable Clarke's fierce dedication to reclaiming the cemetery and telling its story, but Clarke said the work could not have been done without her advisory board and the work of countless volunteers including Boy Scouts and Clemson University anthropology students.

“For the past four years, dozens of volunteers have labored to free these ancestors from the bonds of nature and to create the landscape you see here today,” Clarke said.

Today, a road leads up to a new parking lot. The cemetery and the graves have been cleared of the brush and overgrowth that once surrounded them. An split rail fence protects the cemetery and a kiosk will tell visitors about the cemetery. The site is now a part of the SC Heritage Corridor.

“This has been a day that I've long waited for,” Clarke said. “This has been a journey of four years.”

Nearly 50 years ago, Clarke's mother worked to resurrect the church after it was deliberately burned down, rescuing it from “the ashes of hatred and fear,” Clarke said.

“In the last four years, walking in my mother's footsteps, with an eager and supportive army of volunteers, I have followed my mother's example, and we have transformed an overgrown and neglected final resting place into a beautiful historical monument, befitting the proud people buried here.”

Most of those buried in the cemetery were forgotten long ago, Clarke said.

“But all of us may use this resurrected monument to remember these anonymous people as real, real human beings, who lived, who loved, who labored and died with much pain on this very land,” she said.

She challenged the community to preserve the cemetery as a monument “to the strength of human character, to the love that links all people and to the almighty God who has made these lives and this work possible.”

Though the group was celebrating the saving of the cemetery, other aspects of the project are yet to be completed.

Table Rock State Park Manager Poll Knowland, a member of the advisory board, says the board wants to tell the story of the Liberia community, also known as Little Liberia, and what's happened to it.

Clemson professor Mike Coggeshall and Clarke are working on an oral history of the community.

“That's an incredible project. We want to tell that story,” Knowland said. “That story is so much part of our heritage. Not all history is warm and fuzzy, but it's our history, our heritage. It's part of us and we can be proud of it regardless.”

The schoolhouse next to the church is “probably the oldest African-American one-room schoolhouse in South Carolina,” Knowland said.

“It needs preservation,” he said. “With everyone's help, we can give this place the respect and love that it deserves.”

Another portion of the project will see informational kiosks set up around the church, schoolhouse and the site.

Officials hope the cemetery site will be used for both education and tourism.

“You are welcome,” Clarke said. “Everyone is welcome to come and share this cemetery.”

Rev. Chester Trower, Pastor of Soapstone Baptist Church gave the dedication.

“We dedicated these hallowed grounds to all their descendants,” he said. “May they see this not as a place of shame but as a place of pride, because they, because we, have come from a people who have the faith and the intestinal fortitude to not only endure, but to overcome.”

Soapstone Church is located at 296 Liberia Road in Pumpkintown.