Hilton Head Island

Cemetery at the divide of sea island cultures gets new lease on life

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comFebruary 23, 2013 

New life has been breathed into an old burying ground on Hilton Head Island, and it could put a spring in the step of a dying culture.

The graveyard's story is so close to the heart of this sea island that its chapters include golf, high-priced real estate and a midwife born into slavery in 1861.

Oddly, it took a stranger -- a regular winter visitor from the bluegrass of Kentucky -- to see that Braddock's Point Cemetery in Harbour Town deserved greater respect than the island was giving it.

Over a five-year span, retired manufacturing engineer and history buff J. Wendell Grayson researched all 45 graves that had markers, found descendants through genealogical work, and got the blessings and physical help of descendants and an island landscape contractor to fix up the cemetery. He also had the approval of Community Services Associates in Sea Pines.

"I told Wendell he has made that a very beautiful, sacred site because now folks can see that it is a special place," said Emory Campbell, whose great-grandmother's hand-lettered grave is the oldest one known to be there.

"People have always been sort of tracking through there and it looked so abandoned, but now I think the fencing and the boundaries of palm trees has given it some definition and some prominence."

Grayson said, "This is all about preserving the stones, which preserve the history of the island."


Braddock's Point Cemetery remains active for members of the Williams and related Chisolm families. It dates to Braddock's Point Plantation in what is now Sea Pines. It's where the enslaved and freedmen were buried.

It has long been a lightning rod for the clash of two cultures -- the Gullah culture rooted in West Africa, and a resort culture that began flooding the island with the first bridge in 1956.

The cemetery lies in the shadow of a four-story condominium along the famed 18th fairway of the Harbour Town Golf Links.

Its character, like the tombstone with a plate embedded in it, were overlooked in the new way of life that took over the neighborhood. The strip along Calibogue Sound became home to pricey condos, the Harbour Town Yacht Basin, and the waterside 18th green where a true putt can be worth $1 million to the winner of the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing.

When "60 Minutes" did a piece years ago on this culture clash, the whole world heard native islanders like Campbell say they couldn't visit the graves of their mothers and grandmothers without paying to get through a gate with armed guards. That practice was eventually changed.

Pictures of the cemetery were included in a December 1987 National Geographic article on the Gullah culture eroding under the impact of resort development: "Sea Change in the Sea Islands: Nowhere to Lay Down Weary Head."

Rifts over maintenance of the cemetery, or the lack of it, have popped up through the years.

But today, new light shines on headstones no longer strangled by palmetto trees and buried by sand.

It looks much larger. It looks respected. It no longer looks like an afterthought that nobody cares about.

"It definitely gives Hilton Head a past," Campbell said. "People can now see that this island has evolved from something other than somebody coming and discovering it and putting a bridge up. That's what we've been talking about for years: the island did have a history, a rich, colorful history, and there's no better place to show that history than in the heart of the resort development."


Grayson, 71, describes himself as a collector -- "borderline pack rat."

His 15-by-42-foot room for collectibles at his home in Springfield, Ky., includes Civil War items, 33 handmade whiskey jugs from the hometown Sunny Side Saloon, and Kentucky Derby glasses from 1940 to the present.

He knew nothing about the Gullah culture when he started summer vacations to play golf and ride bikes in Sea Pines. He and his wife, Madeleine, turned the visits into eight- to 10-weeks each winter at Stoney Creek Villas after he retired in 2007.

Grayson spent hundreds of hours researching the people buried at Braddock's Point Cemetery, mostly through census reports and death certificates via Ancestry.com. That's how he found Campbell, and through Campbell he met family leaders Thomas Baker of Savannah and Richard "Skeet" Williams Jr. of Hilton Head.

He met Tom Snell, owner of Gum Tree Nursery and Snell & Associates Landscape Contractors, through the Gullah Museum board of directors.

After a year of planning, Grayson, Williams, and Snell and his workers executed a major overhaul on Valentine's Day -- moving palmettos, pulling up and straightening slumping headstones, unearthing foot stones, laying sod to hold sand in place and repairing the wood rail boundary fence.

"People would walk into the cemetery and I'd be in there working," Grayson said, "and they'd say, 'Do you have relatives buried here?' I said, 'No, I don't but I've adopted all of them.' Because they deserve, and this is no knock against the descendants, these people deserve a nicer looking final resting place from what I found it to be. So I've assigned myself as the maintenance man."

Campbell said that in the Gullah culture, the living traditionally don't spend much time in a cemetery. "We just kind of left it alone and left people in peace," he said. But he said in modern times that can change.

"Now we're going to have to step it up a notch, the family members," he said.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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