city of greenville culture
Written by Ruth Ann Butler,
Greenville Cultural Exchange Center
Old African-American cemeteries are rarely documented. They infrequently appear
on maps and almost never are shown on historic plats. During slavery, African
Americans attended the white churches and worshiped in the balcony of the
church. They were buried either along side of the slave master’s family or a
separate section of the graveyard. For this reason, you will find throughout
Springwood Cemetery hundreds of slave graves. It just was not important to most
plantation owners to show the location of "slave burial grounds." These burial
grounds, used for generations, are rarely documented by deeds or other legal
When slavery was abolished in 1865, beginning 1867 slaves were dismissed by
letter from white churches to find a place to worship and a place to bury their
dead. They started worshiping under a “brush arbor,” a structure built from four
sticks which supported brush used as a ceiling across the top with no walls.
of the churches in the county provided a burial ground. Churches in the city did
not provide a burial ground; therefore, private cemeteries like “Richland
Cemetery” and the “Hillcrest Cemetery” located in the Brutontown community were
established. These cemeteries, however, are often well known to the rural
African-American communities. In some cases, traditional and historical
resources fail to provide certain pieces of information; therefore, long-time
residents and local historians in the community provide valuable information
otherwise not documented. Too often these local resources are not sought.
Traditionally, the dead was carried to the home and remained overnight for
visitation. Their favorite chair and bed were draped with a black cloth. The
funerals took place on Sundays.
Richland Cemetery was one of the first African American cemeteries in the City
of Greenville, South Carolina. The name bears the name of the creek “Richland
Creek,” which is a branch of the Reedy River. The property was deeded to the
City of Greenville for $2,125.00.00 in 1884 by Miss Elizabeth and Emmala Jones,
who were matrons at the Anne Cigar Company. They lived at 702 East North Street.
According to the 1884 deed, the Jones’ deeded over to the City two lots; a
two-acre lot and a 17-acre lot; located at "Spartanburg Road and Richland Creek"
and "Cemetery/Tanyard" properties, respectively. In 1886, Z. Turner was the
"keeper" and in 1907, Isaac Johnson was the Sexton, followed by Gaines Johnson
as Sexton in 1915.
The first mention of the property as "Richland Cemetery" was in 1896, according
to the City Directory dated 1896-1897.
Over the years family plots were purchased in Richland Cemetery. Families were
given deeds (written documentation) to identify location of the graves; however,
many graves in the cemetery are unmarked; therefore it is difficult to determine
the number of unmarked graves.
It was reported in an article entitled "Richland’s Unknown – gone but not
forgotten" in the Greenville News dated February 3, 1983 that in 1907, a
beautification report refers to the “new colored cemetery on East Elford Street”
which indicates that the new location was “make shift” and unsuitable, its size
inadequate, and its presence a danger to the neighborhood and to the city. "It
is a costly mistake," the report continues, "it would be better for all parties
concerned to seek a more level and suitable location farther out." Richland
remains in its same location today.
The cemetery grounds were maintained by a sexton who lived adjacent to the site.
He was responsible for selling lots, opening graves, and maintaining the
walkways. By the 1940s, all plots were purchased. A six-grave lot sold for $10,
according to former Springwood Sexton, the late Tom Garraux. Deeds are now the
only way for a family to prove with certainty ownership of a plot.
The problem of identifying lots resulted from a fire at the Sexton’s House which
occurred some five (5) decades ago, destroying the records, according to Paul
Ellis, City Parks and Grounds Administrator. It is uncertain when the fire took
place. Another problem with identifying lots arose from the fact that families
do not maintain their deeds or pass them on to another family member. Some plots
are unused, others contain graves, but no tombstones. Many families could not
afford tombstones. Other plots have been neglected or forgotten due to
relocation of family members to other areas outside the city or state.
In order to properly identify and maintain grave sites and preserve their
historical value to the community, it is suggested that local officials require
the installation of appropriate headstones or markers at the time of burial or
According to the City Directory in the 1920s and 1930s there was a “colored
settlement” located east of Richland Creek name “Richland Hill.” There is no
mention of how many families were located in this community.
Richland Cemetery has served as the final resting place for some of the most
influential black citizens of Greenville. Some of them include Mr. William
Sewell, a contractor who built Sterling High School and the S.C. Franks
Mortuary; businessman, J. P. “Pick” Chappell; Hattie Logan Duckett, founder of
the Phillis Wheatley Center, and an elementary school named in her honor; Elias
Holloway, businessman and writer. Ministers are Rev. J. W. Lykes, Rev. J. F.
Greene. Rev. Allen Richard Burke, Rev. C. L. Logan, Rev. B. Perry Murray, Rev.
S. W. Williams, Rev. B. A. Lykes, Rev. B. E. Dolphin and Rev. J. L. Fisher.
Teachers included Mrs. Mesolonghi Bowels, Mrs. Fisher, Mr. Jesse L. Bates, Mrs.
Anna Richardson, Ms. Ella Mae Logan, Mrs. M. Whitterspoon, Mrs. Hadden, and Mrs.
M. Calhoun, Mrs. Florence Lykes and others. One of the first black nurses was
Mrs. Cora Chapman, and principal, Mrs. Lena White.
Today, the cemetery is approximately six acres in size and includes over 1400
documented grave sites. The graves date back from the late 1800s up to the
present. Most of the tombstones in the four sections are in good condition.
However, there are several tombstones that are broken and destroyed; some are
illegible, and others have no inscriptions at all.