WESTMINSTER, S.C. -- Pat Pritchard loves a good story, and he has uncovered one in his own backyard that rivals any the Oconee County educator has checked out from the local library or watched on cable.
On a tree-covered hill at the Fair Play Wilderness Boys Camp School sits a small, well-preserved cemetery where the bodies of more than 100 freed slaves are buried.
"I had heard there was an old cemetery on the property, but it didn't make much of an impression on me until about five years ago," said Pritchard, a counselor at the camp.
That's when he wrote down the names on the few stone markers that were legible, and with the help of a Clemson University professor began to dig into the cemetery's past, revealing what experts say is one of the best preserved freed-slave cemeteries in the region.
"I consider the cemetery to be very significant," said Jim Megginson, adjunct professor in Clemson's history department. "It includes burials dating from 1865 on into the 1890s."
Pritchard and Megginson have learned that one of the best-preserved markers belongs to the cemetery owner, an African-American Baptist minister named Tenos Maxwell, who died in 1885.
No relatives of Maxwell have been found, Pritchard said, although he talked with a woman who said her father befriended the preacher.
"That's what really got me interested in this," he said.
Since then, Pritchard and boys from the school have cleaned up the site, including the damage from a spring tornado that downed several trees. They have identified 121 graves, most with simple field stones for markers without a name engraved.
Pritchard said some tombstones are mysterious, like one with the letter J and the number 21. "The letter could mean a month of the year, or it could be the initial of the individual buried there," he said.
Most of the graves have foot stones, which may give clues whether the buried person was a baby, child or adult, Pritchard said.
Many are adorned with flowers left there during a rededication of the cemetery earlier this month. About 50 local residents and students from the boys camp attended.
As a result of their work on the cemetery, the boys have established a wonderful relationship with the local black community, Megginson said.
The ceremony was a learning experience for camp student Nicholous Cook.
"I learned a lot about the cemetery from the people, and about their kin," Cook said. "I enjoyed showing the people around the graveyard."
Megginson, who is working on a project titled "Black Heritage in the Upper Piedmont," said the cemetery's isolation has helped protect it from vandals.
"It's in amazingly well-preserved condition compared with cemeteries located next to churches, where the grave markers have either been knocked over or removed," Megginson said.
The Upstate did not have as many slaves as the Lowcountry's large plantations. But as the Civil War ended in 1865, life was hard for the freed slaves.
According to the Sims-Oliphant history of the state: "Unused to freedom, they did not know whether to look to their former masters for leadership or to the Union conquerors. Some wandered away from their homes, but most stayed on, working for wages or part of the crop."
Wendy Marshall, Upstate field coordinator for the South Carolina Heritage Corridor, said the cemetery site will tie in with other African-American historical sites in Pendleton and in Pickens County through regional discovery trails that will branch off from the main, 240-mile tourist route.
Tourism officials hope to promote the cemetery through brochures and displays at a proposed Discovery Center in Pendleton. And Pritchard, who is doing his dissertation on his findings, hopes a booklet to be published on the work he and the students have done will encourage others to look deeper into the cemetery's past.
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