Man returns home to chronicle black veterans of Civil War

August 1, 2009 

Howard D. Wright in the Talbird Cemetery, where he hopes 300 grave markers will be placed to honor local blacks who fought in the Civil War.

DAVID LAUDERDALE, THE ISLAND PACKET — David Lauderdale, The Island Packet

African-American cemeteries in Beaufort County are enchanting places.

Tiny crabs scurry across tombstones perched at angles next to the marsh. Graves weave through the land, with no neat rows or paved roads. Plates taken from the dinner table half a century ago may be incorporated into tombstones. Information on some of the older headstones appears to be etched by a finger, while nearby a sleek black granite stone might be chiseled with gold lettering. These cemeteries in today’s Lowcountry rest as pricey condominiums or even a grocery store push against the lot line. Yet, somehow even solemn death can’t hush the robust spirit of an overlooked culture.

Howard D. Wright of Hilton Head Island knows these burial grounds like few others.

He sees them as more than hallowed grounds.

To him, they are a reference library. Tombstones offer the missing link in what he calls “unscrambling the slave code in South Carolina.” “When you figure it out,” he said, “it becomes as clear as reading a line of Shakespeare.”

Burying ‘Miss Daisy’ Wright took notice when his grandmother was buried in the almost hidden Elliott Cemetery on Hilton Head in 1982. He was more accustomed to the bustling city where his father, Samuel D. Wright, was a New York City councilman, state representative, lawyer and powerful political organizer said to be instrumental in the elections of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and others.

But the Lowcountry also is home.

It’s where the old hardball political power broker — who the New York Daily News said “was an elegant man, a skilled lawyer and magnetic speaker equally at home at a church lectern or a pool hall” — came in retirement. Howard Wright’s father worked on legal papers to document and preserve 17 African-American cemeteries on Hilton Head.

And it is where Howard Wright spent much of his youth living with his grandmother, Daisy Chisholm Wright Stewart, “Miss Daisy,” at 813 Bladen St. in Beaufort. He’s a 1968 Robert Smalls High School graduate influenced by teacher James Jenkins and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader Cleveland Sellers. Until 2001, Wright worked in New York, where he served on the steering committee of the African Burial Ground when the remains of an estimated 15,000 unknowns were discovered and preserved in the heart of the city. Now Wright has come home to family land on Hilton Head’s Jonesville Road. He rides a bike to work as a cashier at the Bi-Lo supermarket on Pope Avenue, and at 59 is preparing to embark on a three-year online quest for a law degree.

But it was in the Elliott Cemetery, on the marsh by Dolphin Head in Hilton Head Plantation, where Wright first felt the tug of what has become his avocation. He wants to document and preserve in a comprehensive way the personal, family and cultural histories lying dormant in hundreds of African-American cemeteries across South Carolina.

War heroes What began as a personal quest — and one that tells him his family has been in Beaufort County since 1782 — now falls within an organization he calls the Sankofa Restoration Project.

Wright has a method he calls “First Name Protocol” to unearth the sketchy lineage of African-Americans. It uses plantation tax records, information from slave sales, requests for reparations from slave owners during the Civil War, plantation records, census records, Veterans Administration records, military pension records and records of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Co. to put together pages ripped from history by slavery.

Wright says he often can hear the familiar lilt of the Gullah language in musty official records, where names were changed because people were misunderstood.

But nagging mysteries are solved in cemeteries. The truth about family connections is revealed by where people are buried. Here, cemeteries offer only a few generations to work with. The oldest African-American gravestones Wright has found on Hilton Head are for two Campbell children who died in 1878. Nonetheless, the graveyards can provide enough clues to people who know how to read them, so that all the other records begin to sing.

Wright is pushing to get a Veterans Administration tombstone for every African-American who fought in the Civil War.

That would be 2,000 headstones in Beaufort County. He wants 300 of them to go in Talbird Cemetery on Hilton Head, and he wants a memorial here to veterans of the “United States Colored Troops,” first organized on Hilton Head during the Civil War. One of these troops was Wright’s great-great-grandfather, Caesar Kirk-Jones, a slave on Rose Hill Plantation in Bluffton who fought in Company G of the U.S. Colored Light Artillery and was buried in 1904 in the Talbird Cemetery.

Wright wants others to have easier access to missing family information. He hopes to produce a four-volume history of the African-American families of Beaufort County. And he wants a building or museum on Hilton Head where African-American lineage could be researched and the “Colored Troops” honored. He says he has pieced together an extensive database that could help others, just as existing resources at the Heritage Library on Hilton Head and the Beaufort County Public Library can.

I don’t know if Wright’s dreams will ever come true.

But I know that the African-American experience in Beaufort County is one of the greatest stories in American history. So many firsts took place here — the first freedom, first troops, first schools, the first planned city for freed slaves, first public reading of the Emancipation Proclamation — that it should be a much stronger focal point of tourism, and local pride. It should be a Beaufort County claim to fame known worldwide.

Even playing field Wright believes the contributions of African-Americans in local, national and world history is, by and large, unknown.

It’s information that could help all races.

“When people start to realize that they weren’t just servile pawns in a game of commerce, that they brought more to the table — once that is understood, people begin to look at their culture in a different way,” Wright said. “It sort of fortifies their abilities and their aptitude to go on. They begin to accelerate in whatever they do.

“This isn’t to say we’re better, or they’re better, but it is to bring greater light to the diversity of mankind. An even playing field can be created in which people can respect all the cultures, not just one or two.”

After all, the freedoms to explore, tolerate, speak, write, gather, challenge authority and share knowledge, Wright says, form America’s strength.

Discovery of the Lowcountry’s rich culture might begin in a graveyard. But it shouldn’t die there.

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