A few weeks ago, I wrote about my stroll through Morris Brown AME Church Cemetery in North Charleston. It’s just one of several cemeteries located in that area, from African-American to Jewish to Lutheran.
Today, I’m going to try to solve a few mysteries. One is how two white sea captains from Europe ended up in an African-American cemetery in the 1890s, when blacks and whites were rarely buried in the same place.
Burt first, I have a confession to make. When I started my series on North Charleston’s burial society cemeteries, I didn’t do my homework as thoroughly as I usually do. The story behind these burial grounds is more complex than I’d imagined. Today I hope to make up for that.
A very helpful document enabled me to connect some dots about this area. The 2014 master’s thesis of Timothy John Hyder for the University of South Carolina is helping answer some questions I’ve had. I’ve embedded a link to it above so you can read it for yourself.
Much of the land Magnolia Cemetery (and many of the surrounding ones) sits on used to be a huge rice plantation owned by William Cunnington. His house still stands in Charleston’s historic district. The plantation was called Magnolia Umbra, which explains where the cemetery got its name. Magnolia Cemetery, a whites-only cemetery, was established in 1850 with the adjacent St. Lawrence Cemetery (Catholic) opening in 1854.
The others that sprang up around it over time total a jaw-dropping 23 different cemeteries. Mind you, some are very small and a few are owned by the same church, but that’s a big number nonetheless. Hyder refers to this area as the Magnolia Umbra Cemetery District (MUCD). His map can give you a better idea of what I’m talking about.
Magnolia (#1) is located in the top right corner of the map and is the largest cemetery of the group. St. Lawrence Catholic Cemetery (#2) is below it. Bethany Lutheran Cemetery (#4) is in the bottom left. These three were whites-only cemeteries when they began. As you can see, the tightly packed group of cemeteries in the top left corner of the map is a patchwork quilt of lots that blend from one to another in many places.
Thanks to Hyder’s thesis and a 2010 paper by Clemson University student Kimberly Martin, I got a better idea of how these institutions worked. In 1856, according to Hayden, five black burial societies purchased cemetery lands in what was the greatest single yearly expansion of the MUCD by number of cemeteries.
The first black burial society cemetery is thought to have come from the Brown Fellowship Society. Founded in 1790 by freed black males (often referred to as Free People of Color or FPC because they were not slaves) of the St. Philip’s Episcopal Church congregation, Brown Fellowship takes its name not from the name of a founder but from the fact that membership would only be granted to a man with light skin and straight hair.
Hyder points out that Brown Fellowship Society restricted membership to the elite of Charleston’s FPC, men with such a light complexion that they could go into business, educate themselves, and even own slaves without upsetting the strict racial hierarchy of the times. Membership was limited to only 50 members in the beginning and women were not allowed to join. These rules softened only many decades later.
As the most elite of the societies, Brown also offered the most benefits to its members. These included a stipend for widows, health insurance, education for orphans, a credit union, burial insurance and even pallbearers for funerals.
Richard Holloway was not only a member of the elite FPC society, but also owned slaves. At the time of his death in 1843, he is believed to have accumulated at least 20 houses. Another member, hotel owner Jehu Jones, was well known in Charleston.
Brown Fellowship’s original cemetery was located on Pitt Street until 1956 when the land was sold to Bishop England High School under the condition that all remains and monuments be moved to the new MUCD property. While several monuments were moved, it’s unclear if the remains (if any) were actually removed from the Pitt Street property to the MUVD property.
I spent more time at Friendly Union Society Cemetery. It has more monuments and is next door to Brown Fellowship Cemetery. Established in 1813, Friendly Union offered health insurance, stipends to widows, burial insurance and a grave digger’s services when the member died. They purchased the land for their cemetery in 1856.
Walking through Friendly Union, the funerary styles and motifs are indistinguishable from those of a white cemetery. The intention behind this, Hyder asserts, is that the black elite hoped to gain the respect of their white counterparts by imitating their monuments.
One of Friendly Union’s most prominent members was Dr. William D. Crum, son of a white father and a free black mother, who attended medical school in the North. In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Dr. Crum collector of customs in Charleston, a post that gave him authority over white men.
Protests erupted at once. When William Taft became president in 1909, he refused to re-appoint Crum as collector of customs but instead made Crum consul general to Liberia, a position traditionally given to a black politician.
One of the first monuments I came across at Friendly Union was for Captain John A. Peterson (one of the white sea captains whom I mentioned earlier). Peterson arrived in Charleston from Sweden around 1847 and died in 1892. This bit of information sent me diving into Peterson’s background.
From census records, I learned that Peterson came to Charleston at around the age of 21. He did well as a mariner, living on America Street for most of his life. America Street was then a melting pot of FPC and middle-class European immigrants new to the country. He became a fully naturalized citizen in 1871.
According to the 1870 Census, Peterson was married to Henrietta Johnson, a mulatto (mixed race) woman native to South Carolina, and they had two children. Records indicate the family employed a servant as well.
However, records also indicate that John (who was 51 at the time) did not actually marry Henrietta (listed as Harriett on the form) until January 1879, when she was 31. On their marriage certificate, he is listed as “white” and she is listed as “brown”, not “black” or “mulatto”. Their oldest daughter, Mary, was 14 by this time. They had several other children as well.
Unlike other states, South Carolina did not prohibit interracial marriage until after the Civil War. In Charleston, marriages did on occasion take place between FPC and well-regarded whites. The state suspended the prohibition in 1868, only to re-enact it in 1879. I’m not sure why John and Henrietta chose to wait to marry until right before the re-enactment of the prohibition.
John Peterson died at the age of 68 in 1894. Henrietta died of kidney failure in 1911 at the age of 64.
One of the wedding witnesses, Captain Henry Prince, also has his name on the Peterson monument. He is listed as a boarder in the Peterson home on the 1880 Census. A native of the Isle of Wight off the coast of the U.K., Prince was also a white sea captain. He was born in 1814 and arrived in Charleston around 1830. He is listed on the 1880 Census as a boarding with John and Henrietta Peterson. He died of “senility” in 1892 at the age of 79.
Two mysteries still remain. On the other side of the monument are the names of Harold Peterson (who lived only a year) and Ermine (who lived to 15). Both were born after John Peterson’s death. I have no idea how they are related to him unless they were grandchildren.
The other mystery I have yet to fully unravel is that of Jesse Grant, whose name is also inscribed on the monument, beneath the name of Henry Prince. Listed as black or mulatto on some census records, he appears on the 1910 Census (living on America Street) as white and his mother-in-law (also listed as white) is none other than Henrietta Peterson.
I can only surmise that because of John Peterson’s connection to the FPC community via Henrietta, she was able to secure a burial plot for her him through the Friendly Union Society. Henry Prince’s connection must have also secured him a plot. How this all came to pass (including Jesse Grant) is still shrouded in mystery but I’d love to find out more some day.
I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface of this place and its little-known history, but I’ll be back with a final installment next week.