A volunteer researcher wants to launch a project to remember an estimated 26,000 people buried at a 19th-century mass burial ground that is today’s Harmon Field and The Citadel’s football stadium on Charleston’s West Side.
Former middle school reading teacher Julie Bowling said she hopes her effort draws more attention to the graves as part of the ongoing legal battle to prevent development on the nearby wetlands at Gadsden Creek.
To honor the dead, Bowling said she’d enter the names of the dead in a database and share it with an organization willing to share the information on the internet.
“Charleston is a place of great history, and I love this city,” said Bowling, who moved to Charleston three decades ago from Louisville, Kentucky. “But a lot of this history is misunderstood or ignored. We can’t be a city that just memorializes the wealthy.”
From 1841 to 1927, Charleston buried its dead in a 22-acre site once called Tower Hill Cemetery. Orphans, free and enslaved people, immigrants, seamen and Confederate soldiers were interred at the burial ground bounded by President, Congress and Line streets.
The Returns of Deaths within the City of Charleston lists Isaiah, an enslaved one-year-old who died in June 1856 from “diarrhoea.” In November 1855, James Stevens from Ireland drowned. The following month, Prudence, a 69-year-old free “mulatto” resident of the city’s Poor House, died from “insanity.”
Dr. Nic Butler, historian at the Charleston County Library, estimates that more than 26,000 people — twice the population of Moncks Corner — were buried at Tower Hill.
Butler reported the burial estimate two years ago in The Forgotten Dead: Charleston Public Cemeteries 1794-2021, which was posted on the library’s website. “It shocked a lot of people,” he said. “That number is an estimate [but] it is impossible to deny it is a real part of the landscape.”
Bowling told the Charleston City Paper that she saw the names of the dead in the city’s death records as she researched another cemetery, and then she read Butler’s essay.
Bowling may have found an ally in her quest to make the names of the Tower Hill dead available on the internet. Forensic historian Grant Mishoe of Summerville said that during his decades of researching the city’s public burial grounds, he and others have digitized about 80% of the names of the people buried at Tower Hill.
A possible home for the project
With the recent opening of the International African American Museum (IAAM), Bowling said, “People are coming to Charleston, and they’d like a place where they can look for their ancestors.” Bowling said the IAAM could be that place to hold the information.
Fortunately for Bowling, Mishoe recently joined the IAAM’s staff as a research assistant in the museum’s Center for Family History. The IAAM is “absolutely” a good place for the database, he added.
If the IAAM becomes a custodian of the names “that would be very powerful, and that would be a catalyst to get people interested in saving Gadsden Creek,”
A year ago, Bowling joined a committee of the Charleston Area Justice Ministry (CAJM) that is working with the Friends of Gadsden Creek and the S.C. Environmental Law Project (SCELP) to save the creek, said Treva Williams, a CAJM campaign organizer.
“It’s a great thing that Julie is doing to bring awareness of another reason” why the groups oppose the WestEdge Foundation’s plans for infrastructure projects in the wetlands, Williams said.
Bowling added, “Filling in the creek would be a horrible shame for environmental reasons.” She said she wanted to use history as a means to save the creek and honor the dead.
Williams said the Friends of Gadsden Creek also uses history to show how city garbage disposal and housing policies have affected residents near the creek economically and environmentally.
A battle over the wetlands
SCELP has filed an appeal of a S.C. Administrative Law Court judge’s decision late last year to allow WestEdge to cap a landfill in the wetlands along Hagood Avenue to block a toxic runoff from an old city landfill and reduce flooding along Hagood Avenue. SCELP represents the Friends of Gadsden Creek. The judge ruled that WestEdge’s plan is the best step to contain a toxic runoff caused by decades of the city filling in the wetlands with garbage.
Gadsden Creek has been described as the city’s last tidal creek, but a majority of the creek vanished by the 1970s, said Michael Maher, WestEdge’s CEO. The stream of water that runs along Hagood Avenue is a drainage channel that was cut through the landfill. It is not Gadsden Creek, he said. Maher said all that is left of Gadsden Creek is on the west side of Lockwood Drive in Brittlebank Park where it spills into the Ashley River.
“We have throughout acknowledged there was a marsh here and creek there but, what we have today is not” Gadsden Creek between Hagood Avenue and Morrison Drive. “What we have today is allowing contamination to impact the community and the Ashley River,” he said. “The landfill that is there is under that water.”
But Joshua Robinson, principal engineer and a hydrolysis at Robinson Design Engineers in Charleston, said Gadsden Creek still exists along Hagood Avenue that would be affected by the WestEdge plan. Robinson provided expert testimony last summer for SCELP during a hearing before the S.C. Administrative Law Court.
“A drainage ditch is a new landscape feature cut on dry land. But this is a segment of Gadsden Creek that was channelized and straightened; not a new feature,” he said. “Presently, it supports a salt marsh as it has done for millennia.”
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