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Resting place

A church in rural Abbeville County works to designate a slave cemetery

As Lebanon Presbyterian marks its 200th birthday this year, the church is working to map out the parameters of a slave cemetery located behind the church.

Established in 1821, the church is located on Highway 823, commonly known as the Mt. Carmel Road, branching off from Highway 72 between Abbeville and Calhoun Falls.

As with any church that is 200 years old, Lebanon is replete with history, and one of those points of history is believed to lie in the woods behind the church.

Pastor John Butler believes that in those woods there is a slave cemetery. The place was not marked as such originally, but there are clues--depressions in the earth, and field stones.

“Last summer (summer of 2019) we became reacquainted with the slave cemetery,” noted Butler.

There had long been talk that the cemetery was there, and Butler went online to try to enlist the aid of people who could help map out the parameters of the “enslaved persons burial site,” as described in a sign put up recently behind the church.

Butler and the church wanted to know how many slaves were buried there, with the thought that they might want to designate boundaries of a place to be treated with respect.

Enter the South Carolina Search and Rescue Dog Association. Through online research, Lebanon Presbyterian enlisted the aid of this Spartanburg-based nonprofit organization.

The Association uses tracker dogs in its work, and this time they would be tasked with locating graves.

On a very cold January day, representatives of the association, including Mitch Henderson, Katie Ingram, Sarah Hey, and Nancy Jocoy were accompanied by Bo, a shepherd, and Penny, a Lab, and humans and canines together searched the woods behind Lebanon Presbyterian.

Later, in the fellowship hall of the church, they sat down with Butler and a local reporter to talk about the project.

“We are a Wilderness Search and Rescue Team,” said Jocoy of the Association, of which Mitch is the president.

In their work at Lebanon, they used two “cadaver dogs." Bo is nine and a half years old, and Penny is two and a half.

“Our typical human remains call is a suicide or drowning,” said Jocoy.

The cemetery is believed to include at least 80 to 100 graves, and Jocoy and company had been searching for more.

The dogs indicate by their body language the presence of what could be a grave.

“This is an unusual search for us,” Jocoy said, noting that “we don’t typically do historical grave detection.”

It is an organization to which members volunteer their time “basically anywhere we are needed,” said Jocoy.

Their scope of service includes the South Carolina Upstate as well as North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.

Meanwhile, the church has been looking into the question of where they go from here.

“We’ve filed preliminary paperwork with the state archeologist’s office,” Butler said.

The pastor noted that “ground penetrating radar” might be a good tool to use, all on the way to designating it as a state archaeological site.

The project has opened a window into the past, with the pastor noting that if the history of other Presbyterian churches in the South is any indication, it is a fair assumption that at least some of the slaves might have been members of Lebanon.

He went on to say that it would not be the only slave cemetery in Abbeville County. At least one other rural Presbyterian church has such a resting place nearby.

Slave burials, he went on to say, were typically held at night, because the slaves had to work during the day.

With the burial allowing the slaves one of the few chances they had to get together in any kind of fellowship, funerals, illuminated by torch light, could last until daybreak.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and the pastor voiced a need to mark the resting place of people whose lives were marked by seemingly unceasing toil.

“We wanted to honor these folks,” Butler said.

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