No Where To Lay My Body Down. The early history of Charleston’s black citizens is filled with mystery, intrigue, and many unanswered questions. For example, what does a black cemetery on upper Meeting Street and the parking lot of the former Bishop England High School (now College of Charleston) have in common and what important role did they play in Charleston’s black history?
To answer these questions, a good place to start is at the old slave mart on Chalmers Street and the many other slave marts that dotted the streets of Charleston, especially the water front area. It was at these sites where many Africans were held captive and sold into slavery. But the story is actually about the descendants of those slaves and their white slave masters. Through the bloodline of their Caucasian fathers, affectionately referred to as “friends,” many of these offspring were able to escape some of the horrors of slavery. While the mulattos (a first-generation offspring of a Negro and a white), octoroons (a person of one-eighth Negro ancestry), and quadroons, (a person of quarter Negro ancestry) were often granted their freedom, they were still considered sub-human. These new classes of African Americans were accounted among their own people as privileged.
Our story takes us to St. Phillips Episcopal Church where many of free blacks, whites, and slaves, worshiped together. Of course, the slaves often sat in the balcony or some other obscure place. The free blacks were given the privilege of maintaining their own pews. While they enjoyed this special treatment, they were at the same time denied many other rights and privileges of the white members. One of the denied privileges was the right to be buried in St. Phillip’s cemeteries. The Rector of St. Phillips, Thomas Frost, persuaded these free “brown” (light complexion) men to organize themselves, buy some property for a burial ground, and have a meeting house to transact their business. This unity would aid them in their political, social, economic, religious, and educational endeavors.
In 1790, James Mitchell and four other mulattos organized the Brown Fellowship Society, the “Brown” referring to their almost white complexion. It is the oldest of the Negro friendly societies in the state. The society prohibited the discussion of religious or political matters. They were cautious of “ruffling the feathers” of the white society. The Brown Fellowship Society was opened to free blacks of color, very light color, and maybe those who were a few shades darker but with naturally straight hair or “blowing in the wind hair.” Unlike other benevolent societies started by free Negroes, the Brown Fellowship did not help the slave community. Some of them were slave owners. Many of the free black organizations that were later started, purchased slaves and manumitted them.
The first order of business for the Brown Fellowship was to purchase property for a meeting house and a burial ground. The chosen site for the meeting house was on Liberty Street. The site chosen for the burial ground was located between Boundary (now Calhoun), Pitt, Coming, and Bull streets, now the parking lot behind the former Bishop England High School. It was in this area, when in 1794 the cemetery was consecrated by the rector of St. Phillips, Thomas Frost.
The society provided for more than the burial of members. It cared of members’ widows, provided a prima school for their children, and supported members’ business endeavors. Another important function of the society was the lobbying of their white “friends” in power to maintain their privilege status. The society never would have gotten involved in anything like the Denmark Vesey’s insurrection. As a matter of fact, it was William Penceel, a member of the society, who persuaded Peter Prioleau (later changed to Desverney) to inform his master of the impending slave revolt planned by Vesey.
The Brown Fellowship Society’s admission policy (which was tied to the white bloodline of former masters) denied membership to many blacks in Charleston. In 1843, Thomas Smalls, a free black man, applied for membership in the society and was turned down because of the darkness of his skin and possibly because his hair was not straight enough. Smalls, a member of the Circular Congregational Church, organized his own society calling it The Society for Free Blacks of Dark Complexion and later renamed the Brotherly Society. In a spiteful move, this group purchased property adjacent to the Brown Fellowship Graveyard that extended from the middle of the parking lot (separated by a fence) to Coming Street and opened their graveyard and named it, MacPhelah. To be a member of this society and to be buried in the graveyard members had to be of pure African descent. Thomas Smalls also opened another cemetery for the black members of the Circular Congregational Church and named it, Ephrath. Most of the Ephrath cemetery is still intact with the exception of larger headstones which have been pushed over and lined up as a walkway into the garden that is now on the property. Most of the deceased buried in Ephrath were black members of the Circular Congregational Church on Meeting Street. The Plymouth Congregational Church (now on Spring Street) gradually separated in a friendly manner from the Circular Church around 1867. They worshipped at 41 Pitt Street and used the old Ephrath graveyard until around 1950 when it was abandoned.
The Brown Fellowship Society tried to change its image of exclusiveness by opening their doors to others, including women after the Civil War. In 1892 it changed its name to Century Fellowship Society. In 1943, an ordinance was passed prohibiting private organizations from maintaining graveyards in the city. In 1945, two elderly descendants of the Century Fellowship (formerly The Brown Fellowship) sold the graveyard property to the Catholic Diocese. There were many blacks living at the site of the old Bishop England High School who were TOLD that they would be relocated to make way for the new school. A former resident of that area said that the depression of having to leave their homes was so great for some that they died from grief before they could relocate. No doubt, the descendants of the Brown Fellowship were probably TOLD that they must sell the graveyard. In 1957, Bishop England expanded and needed some parking space. The old graveyard was a prime spot. Blacks who lived in the area knew that in the haste for expansion, the bodies were never removed and only three large obelisk stones and several other larger stones were moved and placed in one of the black graveyards on upper Meeting Street. For years the desecration of the gravesite was written off as a local “fib.” Only two graves were removed from the Bishop England site by a descendant of the Society.
For many years officials of the Catholic Church claimed that all the stones and remains were removed but blacks who lived around the Bishop England area knew differently, and the local “fib” was validated when four gravesites were discovered along with the headstones on January 15, 2001 when the property was being cleared to make way for a new college library. The smaller flat stones and the remains of the Brown Fellowship Society members were paved over. Under the asphalt are the remains of many prominent black Charlestonians. Pieces of tombstones were stacked up behind the out building of the College of Charleston’s Blacklock House until around 1998 when they disappeared. Ironically, one stone listed the deceased as a Catholic. Inside the former out building, a larger stone was pieced together. This property abuts the former Bishop England parking lot. The names of the society members and the minutes of their meetings can be found at Avery Institute of the College of Charleston.
In 1990, the descendants of the Century Society ( Brown Fellowship) reorganized themselves, went searching for the stones and found 3 obelisk pieces. They bought a strip of property adjacent to the other black graveyards on upper Meeting Street. These stones were beautifully erected in memory of their descendants whose remains lay quietly under the asphalt behind the former Bishop England High School.
The recent discovery of the grave sites will be handled with respect, according to the Catholic Church and the College of Charleston, and will all be removed to a new location. Because many of the buried were founders and original members of St. Phillips, the new location should be in St. Phillip’s graveyard. It was rather unfair to refuse these paying blacks members the privilege of being buried in their graveyard, especially when they had a graveyard for non-paying white non-members.
By the God that these people served, the Catholic Church and St. Phillips have been granted a chance more than two centuries later to validate God-given, human dignity.