Hidden Heritage 

The community of Scanlonville fights to protect its history and cemetery

click to enlarge Old gravestones and new markers intermingle under the oaks. - BEN WILLIAMS
  • Ben Williams
  • Old gravestones and new markers intermingle under the oaks.

As it has for over 100 years, the quiet, marsh-front community of Scanlonville usually goes unnoticed. The Mt. Pleasant neighborhood is not a tourist attraction. It is not in most brochures. It's barely even visible from the Arthur Ravenel Bridge. But it's as culturally valuable as Boone Hall, Shem Creek, or the Old Village.

It may appear to simply be a quiet and spacious neighborhood situated in the shadow of a tall Mt. Pleasant water tower, just past Fire Department No. 3 on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Mathis Ferry Road. And it might seem like just a few blocks' worth of old houses around the corner from a popular boat landing, tucked between new high-rise apartment buildings and gated subdivisions, but there's an unusually deep heritage in Scanlonville. And that heritage was almost irrecoverably disturbed during a recent legal battle between longtime residents and a developer. At the center of the controversy was a battle over the figurative heart of Scanlonville — a modest cemetery.

The neighborhood's scenic yet nearly hidden cemetery is historically significant. "It's likely the cemetery existed even before Scanlonville, as one of two areas on the Remley Plantation where whites were being buried," says Michael Trinkley, a representative from the Chicora Foundation — a Columbia-based, nonprofit heritage preservation organization founded in 1983. "It's also likely that a portion of the cemetery was also in use by the slave community for the burial of their families."

Lowcountry residents should take note.

click to enlarge scanlonville_map.jpg

The Founding of Scanlonville

Scanlonville was one of the first African-American communities formed in the Charleston area after the Civil War. The community was created when Robert L. Scanlan, most likely a former slave and a freedman carpenter, purchased the 614-acre property in an auction in 1868 in trust for the Charleston Land Company from what was known as Remley's Plantation. The plantation was situated on a large swath of land bordering Charleston Harbor along the Wando River previously owned by relatives of Paul Remley, who died in 1863. By 1870, Scanlonville had been designed and platted into half-acre town lots and two-acre farm lots.

Today, the area's longtime African-American residents tend to refer to it as Scanlonville while white newcomers and folks from other parts of the Charleston area usually call it Remley's Point. Either way, the community retains unique historical and cultural significance. Meanwhile, the people of Scanlonville are divided on exactly how to spell Scanlon, For some, it's Scanlon. For others, it's Scanlan.

The Charleston Land Company was one of only a few in the area with the goal of helping freed blacks obtain property. The plans included space for a park and a cemetery to be used by the entire community. Over the next 40 years, the community prospered, and Scanlon's company sold the majority of plots to the African-American families in the area — most of whom descended from the slaves who worked on plantations East of the Cooper. The residents were quite self-sufficient over the decades, relying on the sea and land for food and work.

click to enlarge Mac Burdette
  • Mac Burdette

Most of the original Scanlonville plots are home to single-story frame houses set on brick or concrete masonry unit piers. Many have tin roofs and wide porches and were built by residents and their neighbors — a fair number of whom were masons, electricians, and carpenters.

"What's interesting about Scanlonville is that it's a settlement pattern that's very unique to Mt. Pleasant in terms of South Carolina after the War Between the States," says Mt. Pleasant Town Administrator Mac Burdette. "In many parts of South Carolina, obviously, when slaves were freed, many of them congregated out of a sense of protection and mutual interests — from St. Helena Island and the island around Beaufort and on up the coast. In the East Cooper area, you've got a host of these communities. They appear to have been very independent of each other. Sure, they knew they were there and knew each other, but they've never seemed to coordinate politically or in other ways. Part of that probably comes from the post-Reconstruction idea of the African-American communities wanting to fly under the radar screen, which made a lot sense to many of them. I think they stayed there at their settlement communities and probably did some sharecropping of some kind, and did their own farming and fishing."

Some of the far-reaching corners of these sea island communities aren't on city maps. And while these communities share similar stories, they all face similar issues today — suburban sprawl, town-managed road projects, annexation challenges, and gentrification.

Bin Yahs and Cum Yahs

Bin [Gullah, for "been"], to occupy a position, exist, live

Yah [Gullah for "here"], in this spot, locality

Some locals have taken note of the problems facing Scanlonville.

The Charleston-based film organization ChasDOC's first feature-length production, Bin Yah: There's No Place Like Home, an hour-long documentary film by director Justin Nathanson, tells the bittersweet story of the Gullah-Geechee communities and historic African-American neighborhoods of East Cooper, including Scanlonville.

Shot on a shoestring budget, the filmmakers tried to capture much of the personality and flavor of the historic black communities. Bin Yah spends equal time with community leaders from Scanlonville and covers significant developments pertaining to the Scanlonville cemetery as well — a very old gravesite that was the subject of a recent heated legal battle between the community and developers.

Not quite the romantic documentary on the sweetgrass basket weavers and their lineage and culture that some locals may have expected, Bin Yah turned out to be a serious indictment about the effects of sprawl, real estate development, traffic, and road projects on some of the oldest Mt. Pleasant neighborhoods.

"A lot of the developers coming in don't understand this land here," says filmmaker Nathanson. "I certainly didn't before I did my research. I think most developers would not potentially have such a heavy hand if they did. The communities just want to be heard and understood and treated with respect. I hope the film does cause something to happen — to educate and be used as a tool."

Mt. Pleasant Administrator Burdette watched Bin Yah last month. He had a mixed reaction.

While Burdette admired some of the film, he feels that the documentary leaned too far into a pronounced "anti-development" theme, excluding the pro-development perspective and implying that town government was somewhat insensitive to the African-American communities.

"I like balanced reporting, and I like both sides being told. You ought to be able to say, 'Oh, by the way, the leadership in Mt. Pleasant in the last three decades has done these things in order to try to bridge those gaps that were created over generations,'" Burdette says. "I think the leadership in Mt. Pleasant bends over backwards to try to prove and indicate that days of Jim Crow and segregation are over. We are genuine and sincere about treating everyone fair, always."

The Bin Yah filmmakers did take a decidedly editorial approach, collectively choosing to veer toward presenting the "native" point of view and the bitter battle between the "bin yahs" of Scanlonville and the "cum yahs" of Mt. Pleasant who see great potential for land development in the area.

"As a documentary filmmaker, you naturally have the inclination to get that journalistic side to it. This was a question I brought up," Nathanson says. "We came to the conclusion that we wanted to tell the story of people who never get the chance to tell their story in the way that they could. The developers have a tremendous amount of resources and PR machines, so we wanted to give the mic to the people that deserved it in this case."

click to enlarge Touring acts such as James Brown - and local groups, such as The Royal Sultans - performed regularly at the old White's Paradise venue. - AVERY RESEARCH CENTER/GAILLIARD COLLECTION
  • Avery Research Center/Gailliard Collection
  • Touring acts such as James Brown - and local groups, such as The Royal Sultans - performed regularly at the old White's Paradise venue.

The Hottest Hot-Spots in Scanlonville

One of the most fascinating elements of the Scanlonville story is the history of its recreation areas and entertainment venues. It may be a surprise to some locals that from the 1940s to the '60s, the place teemed with activity along the waterfront and up and down Third, Fourth, and Fifth avenues. There's a rich history of entertainment and social gathering spots, such as the Riverside Beach pavilion and bandstands, White's Paradise, Hunt's, Snipe's, and Jim Blue.

"When I walk up to speak at a meeting and announce that I've been here since 1959, some of them look at me like I'm crazy," Ed Lee says with a laugh. "Some of them don't remember Riverside Beach, and I remember that vividly. They don't remember the stores, the nightclubs, the hotels — and they had no need to."

Lee is president of the East Cooper Civic Club and an architect by trade who's worked for years for the county and the federal government. He grew up in Scanlonville and moved back to the neighborhood in 1983 after finishing college. He and his wife renovated a house on Seventh Avenue that used to belong to Henry White, proprietor of White's Paradise nightclub and hotel.

Riverside Beach was a "no sand" pavilion and recreation area developed west of Scanlonville on the edge of the Wando River. It officially opened in the summer of 1930 and operated through 1975. Riverside was the largest and most popular and oldest of five black beaches in Charleston County.

"Riverside had two open-air pavilions and a boardwalk," Lee says. "We used to go down there on Saturday mornings and crab. It was pretty much open all the time. The lady who used to manage the beach was my great-aunt Davarline Frasier-Lee ... She was a wonderful cook and actually ran the kitchen [at Fort Sumter Hotel] for years. She cooked a lot of seafood and made the best fried chicken in the world."

click to enlarge Ed Lee: longtime Scanlonville resident and East Cooper Civic Club member. - BEN WILLIAMS
  • Ben Williams
  • Ed Lee: longtime Scanlonville resident and East Cooper Civic Club member.

For decades, Riverside was one of the only venues for black Charlestonians to catch America's finest jazz, blues, and R&B acts. Musical legends such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong., B.B. King, and Ivory Joe Hunter performed there. Now, virtually nothing remains of the facility. The town erected a commemorative historic marker across the street from the Remley's Point Boat Landing in 2003.

Charleston music critic and author Jack McCray dug deep into his hometown's musical background in his 2007 book, Charleston Jazz. According to McCray, the Riverside Beach pavilion was considered a venue of importance in the Charleston area by local and national acts.

Charleston Jazz includes a great photograph from 1945 of a popular local jazz band called The Royal Sultans, situated in matching suits on the wooded bandstand inside White's Paradise — a large-sized, salmon-painted hotel and ballroom once located a few blocks north of the Scanlonville Cemetery on Fourth Avenue. The most famous act to perform at White's was James Brown, who gigged there in the late 1950s.

"White's was a pretty good-sized, fully-functional nightclub with a big stage," remembers Lee. "It was almost gymnasium-sized with columns down the side, booths, tables, and a full bar area. It was like a 1950s version of the Shriner's hall over there on Patriots Point."

White's was one of several low-key juke joints in the neighborhood. Lee remembers kids and adults congregating at Hunt's Store, the Chitter-Chatter, and other hangouts. However, the wild reputation of White's seems to have been the longest-lasting.

Graveyard Controversies

Big mansions and luxury homes are a relatively recent phenomenon in Scanlonville. Local real estate listings for lots and houses in and around Scanlonville feature photos of tall oaks trees, marshes, and the Ravenel Bridge. Prices for the half-acre properties range from $190,000 to well over $600,000.

Much of the property in Scanlonville and other historic African-American communities in East Cooper are held in an odd limbo of sorts — a legal situation and tanglement called "heir's property." The term refers to a collective land ownership involving shares held by ancestors of previous landowners going back several generations. In most of the historic African-American communities across the Carolinas, it's a long-running tradition.

Things get a bit confusing when those who inherited a parcel that lacks an up-to-date title are faced with contemporary property issues. In some cases, the original purchaser from the 19th century may still be named as owner. Scanlonville's old graveyard is still entangled in debate.

The cemetery is a remarkably tranquil place. The plot was established over 130 years ago under moss-draped oaks at the northwest side of the community at the base of a marsh along Molasses Creek. More charming than eerie, it's tucked away from the paved roads and dotted with small concrete and marble headstones (some with hand-scratched lettering) and tin funeral home plates bearing such family names as Coleman, Small, Drayton, Bailey, Brown, Fordham, Simmons, Webster, and Rivers. Some graves are still adorned with symbolic "grave goods," such as ceramic tea pots, medicine bottles, mirrors, and broken plates — a practice common in many African-American cemeteries in the Carolinas. Many burial sites are barely visible or marked by a bleached whelk shell or a palmetto log.

"Most of the people who live there now are descendants of those first families," says Burdette. "Of course, with that comes some very interesting property issues."

Local attorney Thomas Rogers and his wife Victoria own an eight-acre parcel adjacent to the cemetery. In 1999, they paid $1 million for the plot where the cemetery has stood for years. Rogers planned to clear the approximately 3.8 acres there and build a large-size home.

The land was sold by the family of Dorothy Ayers to Remley Point Development, LLC, on June 9, 1999. Rogers bought it from the group on the same day.

In 2001, Rogers petitioned the Town of Mt. Pleasant for permission to move the graves. The trail of titles and deeds dating back to 1787 turned out to be a winding and messy chain of transactions between various trustees and grantees. Some records indicate Ayers acquired the deed to the cemetery property in 1953, while others contradict the legality of that deed, implying that the land is in the public trust.

click to enlarge A sun-bleached whelk shell may seem unimportant to some, but pieces like this mark numerous burial sites in the Scanlonville cemetery - BEN WILLIAMS
  • Ben Williams
  • A sun-bleached whelk shell may seem unimportant to some, but pieces like this mark numerous burial sites in the Scanlonville cemetery

The East Cooper Civic Club's attorneys asked Lee to try to count the visibly marked graves as they prepared for the legal battle. As the residents of Scanlonville heard about the land transaction and grave removal plans, they expressed considerable anger and concern.

According to Burdette, despite the question of ownership, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control ruled against removing the graves. The town backed that up and decided not to permit the proposed development on that tract of land.

"There was a lot of debate over it, and there was a lot of wrangling about that by the lawyers," Burdette says. "We made it very clear that we wanted them to have access to that, but we only had limited power to make that happen — particularly if that land was owned in fee simple ownership." Fee simply is ordinarily the most complete ownership that can be had in real property.

In 2001, 10 members of the East Cooper Civic Club filed a lawsuit against Thomas and Victoria Rogers and the Remley Point Development and sought a declaratory judgment that the land in dispute had been publicly dedicated for use as a burial ground. They asserted that the graveyard had been consistently and regularly used since at least 1870 and that hundreds of individuals are buried therein.

Rogers did not respond to City Paper's requests for comment.

According to court transcripts, the Rogers family denied that the land had been publicly dedicated and asserted that at the time they purchased the surrounding land in 1999, the graveyard was overgrown and no longer in use.

The unkempt appearance of the cemetery, which had become a bit more overgrown than usual in the years after Hurricane Hugo, is actually consistent with graveyards in other historic African-American communities.

"There is no evidence that the cemetery has been 'abandoned' in the social sense," wrote Trinkley. "It remains an important aspect of the African-American community at Scanlonville. Interpretation of its appearance as that of abandonment is a tragic misunderstanding of traditional African-American mortuary and burial beliefs and one which attempts to view their culture in the context of white society."

This misperception illustrated the sad fact that many don't realize the importance and significance of graveyards such as Scanlonville's.

Trinkley and his team examined the marked graves, found many more unmarked graves, and pieced together one of the more definitive histories of the community. He estimates that the cemetery may contain between 600 and 2,000 burials of African-Americans.

"I was not aware that all the evergreens and shells and plates were so significant," Lee says. "I got an education from Dr. Trinkley on that. He had the expertise to recognize those. I knew that the people in the neighborhood knew who they were. As a matter of fact, you'll still find flowers on spots that have no marker from people who attended a funeral and know that's their mother or grandmother right there. There's no official marker, but they know that's where it is."

In a testimony before Town Council in 2001, William H. "Ghost" Fordham, one of the key community leaders who led the fight to save the cemetery, stated that he had over 20 relatives buried in the graveyard, including grandmothers and grandfathers. According to minutes from the town meetings, he added that the graveyard belongs to the community and asked whether the town was going to let Rogers "dance" on the graves of his forefathers and ancestors.

The case finally went to trial in June 2005.

Charleston County Master-in-Equity Mikell Scarborough stated that nothing in the record showed the community or the families of the dead severed their ties to the land. "There can be no clearer acceptance than the public use of the property to bury their loved ones," Scarborough wrote. "Typical of other African-American rural burial grounds in the area, the deceased were generally buried in family groupings, not in organized plots."

Trinkley testified at the week-long trial. In his testimony, he said, "From a preservation standpoint, this is an exceptional victory. This is the first time we have had such a significant victory in cemetery preservation, particularly for African-American cemeteries."

A Small Victory

William "Ghost" Fordham recently passed away. Just two weeks later, another community elder, Mrs. Hilda Brown-Holmes passed on as well. After funeral services downtown at Morris Brown AME Church, both were buried in the Scanlonville cemetery. Despite the sadness of the occasions, the folks of Scanlonville experienced a great joy in reclaiming sacred land and unifying behind the cause.

"It was really a historic and emotional event for the community because we lost two of Scanlonville's oldest residents and the community got to visit a beautiful waterfront site that has much historic, personal, and community significance," Lee says. "It is amazing because we are getting burial site requests from family members that no longer live in South Carolina as well as locals that want to return home."

Fortunately for Scanlonville, an official "dedication" is the irrevocable setting aside of land for public use. It's well established that land can be dedicated for public use, and the court granted the community's request for a declaratory judgment that the graveyard has been dedicated to the public and not abandoned.

"The judge said the cemetery was in the public domain and could not be developed," says Lee. "Our attorneys told us that since it's a publicly dedicated graveyard, we can use it for burials any time. Mr. Fordham always wanted to be buried there, because his whole family was there. When he was buried, it opened up the floodgates. Then, just two weeks later, all sorts of people attended Hilda Brown's funeral. They had family members in the graveyard, too, so there were people all over the place putting flowers up everywhere."

While gentrification and encroachment will surely change the landscape and financial dynamic of the neighborhood over the years, Lee and his community will stand unified behind issues of concern — ranging from archaeological, historical, and religious significance to real estate development. Fortunately — despite the distractions, interruptions, and changes — the collaborative and neighborly spirit of the place will endure and the historic graveyard will stand as a sacred landmark.

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