On Sept. 12, 1879, the Lewis Christian Union was chartered by the S.C. Legislature "to promote the spiritual benefit of its members, the care of its members when in sickness and distress in life and their burial at death." Two months later, this African-American group purchased two lots at the corner of Skurvin and Pershing streets to be used as a cemetery. Located on the grounds of the former Magnolia Umbra Plantation, it's one of 23 adjacent cemeteries, including Magnolia Cemetery, that are collectively eligible for the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district.
Lewis Christian Union Cemetery is small, and until about a year ago, it was a jungle. Old tires, shopping carts, and broken televisions were regularly piled up in the bushes along the street. A few headstones were visible along the margins where families had continued to maintain family plots; several more could be seen in some of the openings where vines had not yet choked out the light. But otherwise, this was a forgotten, unloved, and unruly cemetery. It had not been maintained for many years, and this final resting place for members of the Lewis Christian Union, buried here for more than a century, had degenerated into a place to dump garbage and hide from the law.
We at the Preservation Society of Charleston listed the cemetery on our 2012 Seven to Save list to highlight the importance of stewarding our region's historic cemeteries and to recognize the challenges faced by small burial societies as their membership passes on. Our first step was to organize a volunteer clean-up day. It rained, and we bloodied ourselves in the tangled vines but barely made a scratch in the little forest. Yet we caught our breath and cheered each time another headstone emerged. One month later, our scars were healed, the vines had grown back, and a new pile of trash (more tires and a smashed Magnavox) had appeared. This time, Citadel cadets volunteered to charge ahead, but we could not push the line of green back much further.
Finally, it was time to for a surge. We called in a professional landscaping company, and these efficient mercenaries cleared the cemetery of the undergrowth. After the wood chipper had chopped the last trunk, a gentle quiet fell over the cemetery, and the sun was shining on 129 headstones. It was a remarkable transformation.
Having won this newfound historic territory, we hired a surveyor to plot every headstone, depression, and tree on the property. Next we called in the Charleston chapter of the S.C. Genealogical Society. Pat Kruger and her lieutenants photographed each headstone (in some cases after having to dig them out first), transcribed the inscriptions, and began to research the lives of those buried in the cemetery.
In working to restore Lewis Christian Union Cemetery, we hope to honor those who have contributed to Charleston in forgotten ways, while reconnecting those buried there to the houses where they lived and the buildings where they worked. When a family places a marker, it is intended to remember the life of the departed for years to come. Now that we can see them again, let's remember a few of them, with our deepest gratitude to our genealogical volunteers for compiling this information.
Rev. H. W. B. Bennett (1865-1915) was born in Santee. He married Chloe Ann Howard circa 1890. Bennett was a minister in the Goose Creek Circuit in 1892; he was in Georgetown as late as 1905 and came to Charleston as minister of Emanuel A.M.E. Church on Calhoun Street from 1906 to 1910. It was the largest black church in the city at the time, and he later became presiding elder of the Edisto District. Rev. Bennett and his wife had at least nine children; at his death, his estate was worth $8,000. He had just purchased 13½ Radcliffe St. at the time of his death in October 1915 but had lived at 51 Mary St. (demolished) for many years.
Lydia Bonneau (1876-1901) died a horrific, well-publicized, accidental death in 1901, but her life remains shrouded in mystery. She was reportedly born in Georgia on Oct. 17, 1876. Of her parents, nothing is known. No marriage record has been found in Charleston County records, although news accounts indicate she was living with a husband, Cyrus Bonneau, at the time of her death on June 7, 1901. Their residence, 24 Poinsett St., was about 350 feet from the Charleston Consolidated Railway Gas and Electric Light Company. Just before midnight, the 18-ton flywheel in the powerhouse, going at about 150 revolutions per minute, broke into many pieces and exploded through the walls and roof. One piece, estimated to be 5 feet long and weighing one ton, flew through the roof of Bonneau's house on Poinsett Street and into the body of Lydia Bonneau as she slept. Both she and her husband were thrown from their house by the momentum, and she died instantly. This tragic story was printed in newspapers around the country. Records indicate that the power company settled her husband's claim for compensation for $515. Shortly after she died, her infant daughter died from an illness and was buried beside her.
William C. Coles (1846-1927) was a Union veteran of the Civil War, serving in the 21st U.S. Colored Infantry as a private. His grave is marked with a military headstone. He was 5'5" tall with hazel eyes and black hair and served primarily in the Port Royal and Hilton Head Island area as an orderly at the Post Headquarters. He received a military pension in 1891. He was from the Columbia area, the son of Jacob and Charlotte Coles, and after the war he married a woman from Baltimore with whom he had at least five children. He was a fisherman and fish salesman. In 1870 he lived on Tradd Street and later bought a house on Cooper Street. His wife died in 1885, and he married again in 1888 to Zella Richardson at her house at 4 Ford Court. They lived at 27 Cooper St. She died in 1902, but William lived another 25 years.
Paul C. Fludd (1869-1927) was born in Charleston, son of Plato and Susan (Morgan) Fludd. He lived at 97 Wentworth Street with his grandmother in 1880. He was a butcher on Pitt Street working with J. Godfrey and later worked for the firm of Gaillard and Fludd. He married Hattie E. Ancrum around 1896 and lived at 36 Woolfe St. (demolished). He later lived at 291 Ashley Ave. from at least 1900 until his death in 1927. His meat market was located at 105 Calhoun St. (demolished) and later he provided Ansonborough with fresh meat at 78 Anson St. He and his wife had at least four sons, two of whom died young. Fludd's death record indicates that he is buried at Lewis Christian Union Cemetery, but he is one of many men and women whose grave is no longer marked with a stone.
A. Kathleen Green (1913-1939) was born in 1913, daughter of William A. and Marian (Payne) Green. Sthe lived for a while with her uncle Harry, a machinist, at 19 Chestnut St. Her mother had remarried and was a widow by 1930, when she was living with her at 12 Pine St. By 1934, Kathleen was a teacher at the Shaw School and was one of the first teachers at the Henry P. Archer School when it opened as the first free, public accredited school for African Americans. She shared her love of knowledge with her students until her untimely death from tuberculosis in 1939 at the age of 26.
Lucille Campbell Moultrie (1906-1982) was the daughter of Augustus and Alice (Perry) Campbell. She, too, was a teacher at the Henry P. Archer and later Columbus Street Elementary schools. After her father's death, she grew up at 75 Line St. (demolished) with her mother and younger brother, Augustus. She later moved to 128 Romney St., where she lived the rest of her life. She retired from teaching in the mid-1970s and married late in life to William E. Moultrie in 1976. They were married only a short time until his death the following year. Lucille died on Aug. 8, 1982, when she owned both her childhood home at 75 Line St. and her residence at 128 Romney St.
We are proud to have initiated the restoration of Lewis Christian Union Cemetery with an outpouring of volunteer support, and we are glad that the stories of these Charlestonians can be told again.
Evan R. Thompson is the executive director of the Preservation Society of Charleston.