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Librarian seeks historical marker for forgotten cemetery

  • Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Taylor Griffith/South Strand News An empty parking lot and abandoned bank now sit on the lot where historical documents show Potter’s Field, a cemetery, once existed.

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Today in Georgetown there is an abandoned bank on the lot between Fraser, Dozier, Duke and Highmarket Streets. Adjacent are the Ice House and the old Winyah Gym.

In 1885, there was a cemetery there.

And Patti Burns, librarian and head of adult services at the Georgetown County Library main branch, says it’s still there.

The block was once known as Potter’s Field, a cemetery for the poor. It is clearly depicted in a map of Georgetown, called “Plan of Georgetown South Carolina,” dated June 27, 1885.

According to the document, the map was compiled by Le Grand G. Walker, clerk and treasurer of council. The document remains in storage at the library.

Burns, who said she’s always had an interest in cemeteries and tombstones since doing genealogy work with her aunt as a child, has found 80 to 85 death certificates citing Potter’s Field as the site of burial.

Mostly African-Americans were buried there, but a few poor or unidentified white people were also laid to rest in the cemetery.

Burns said the death certificates and newspaper articles tell stories of the variety of people who are buried there.

“Joseph Hayne Rainey [U.S. Representative and S.C. Senator, who died in 1887], his brother was buried at Potter’s Field. No one ever found Sen. Rainey’s grave, so there’s a suspicion that he’s where his brother is,” she said.

After the passing of a long-time, beloved janitor, the Winyah Indigo Society paid for his burial at Potter’s Field and a corresponding obituary.

In 1915, a fisherman found a corpse at the end of his fishing pole in the Sampit River, and that unidentified white man was buried at Potter’s Field.

“I opened this Pandora’s Box,” Burns said of her research. “The more research I did, the more fascinating it became.”

In her research, she discovered the cemetery was labeled as a health hazard in 1901. “They weren’t burying the bodies deep enough,” she said.

The bodies were buried 23 inches deep, which caused noticeable problems in the rain and during summertime heat. “The health inspector became involved,” she said, and the graves were eventually buried deeper.

In 1919, the South Carolina legislature gave the county the right to disengage Potter’s Field as a cemetery.

“It was important land,” Burns said.

Her records show burials there up until the 1930s, and the property wasn’t developed until the 1950s.

She said there have been claims that newspaper articles were published asking families to move their loved ones’ graves to another cemetery, but “if there had been an article, one of us [historians] would have found it. No one can produce one of those articles.”

Not only does she doubt that the public was informed of the development, but even with proper warning, it’s unlikely that the decedents of the poor who were buried in Potter’s Field would have had the money to exhume and rebury their ancestors’ remains.

Burns suspects many of the graves still remain.

And she hopes to arrange to one day discover the truth, with the help of specialized equipment called a ground-penetrating radar.

“Horry County [Library] has one, and they came here and showed us how it worked two years ago at Elmwood Cemetery.”

The machine looks similar to a lawn mower and shows the depth of objects in the ground below it using a radar receiver.

Burns said the radar will show whether graves and tombstones still remain in the defunct cemetery.

But the radar costs $30,000, a sum the library doesn’t have, so her plans to discover what’s beneath the pavement are stalled.

For her, uncovering what’s left of the cemetery is as much about the chase – “I have a bit of a detective side to me, it’s a big puzzle” – as it is respect for Georgetown’s history.

“Cemeteries need to be preserved, they need to be taken care of out of respect for the people in them but also because it’s history. History written in stone,” she said.

So in the meantime, it has become Burns’ mission to get a historical marker on the property, identifying the cemetery and those buried there.

To do so, she will need permission from the county and $1,850 for the marker, which she will apply for in the upcoming grant cycle.

“These folks have been more or less forgotten, and I hate that.”

As she works toward a historical marker for Potter’s Field, she will also continue working with other Georgetown cemeteries.

Later this year she has plans to photograph and transcribe tombstones in various cemeteries across town for the digital library.

And while volunteers will be working to photograph all of the known graves in Georgetown, Burns said she won’t forget those buried in Potter’s Field.

“It was a time when we didn’t give people the respect they deserved. But it’s history. I think, and I believe, that it needs to be preserved and recognized.”

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