Sunday, February 19, 2017

Mysterious Campus Headstone Solved?

Ruth Miller and I- and friends! (photo by Lexi DeJesus)
For decades now, the headstone of a 19th century U.S. president's mother has been seen (or not even noticed) by passersby on the College of Charleston campus in front of the Robert Scott Small building.

The name etched in stone is that of Elizabeth Jackson, whose son Andrew Jackson would be America's seventh president from 1829-1837. Not sure who is or was? Well, look at a $20 bill and there he is.

Charleston historian Ruth Miller knows more than most about how Mrs. Jackson's headstone came to be at CofC.

It's an interesting and far reaching story that includes the Revolutionary War, British prisoner of war ships in the Charleston Harbor, the Daughters of the American Revolution, World War II troops stationed at Fort Moultrie and past CofC president Ted Stern.

Charleston Post and Courier writer Robert Behre in 2011 wrote a column that does the best job I've seen of connecting the dots in this history mystery.  For the sake of brevity and my desire to move on to other Ruth Miller topics in this post, I encourage readers to check out Behre's very detailed piece on the Elizabeth Jackson headstone.

Miller's long career has included being a teacher, writer, author, speaker and tour guide. On her website, she lays claim to co-founding Charleston's first daily walking tour in 1979.

Years ago, while giving a tour to 30 visiting morticians, they turned the tables on her by wanting to go into some of the church graveyards on the tour and telling her unique and interesting stories about some of the graveyard markers and symbols and the people buried under them.

This sparked in Miller a passion to learn more about Charleston's rich graveyard tradition- and to share her knowledge with authors. She was written booklets on several of the Holy City's most distinguished graveyards such as the ones at the Circular Congregational and Unitarian churches.

Speaking to my CofC "Beyond the Grave" students on Feb. 6, Miller detailed how Charleston had "more religious freedom than any of the other 12 colonies."

"Our (South Carolina) constitution defined a congregation as needing only seven people," she said.

Miller recounted how, from England to Charleston, would come Anglicans (later Episcopalians), Dissenters (later Congregationalists), Quakers and Baptists. From France would arrive the French Protestants called Huguenots and Roman Catholics. Lutherans would arrive in Charleston from Germany and Presbyterians from Scotland. Jews would also come over from Europe.

Indeed, Charleston's nickname the "Holy City" would be richly and rightfully deserved!

St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church on Hassle Street 
Charleston's religious tolerance, according to Miller, would lead to many firsts, such as:
  • Organized in 1682, Charleston's First Baptist Church, located on Meeting Street, is the earliest in the South 
  • St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church, still active on Hassle Street downtown, is the oldest English speaking Catholic church in the Carolinas and George.
  •  Also on Hassle Street is the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue, which boasts the fourth oldest Jewish congregation in America 
  • KKBE's Coming Street cemetery is the oldest surviving Jewish burial ground in the South 
Researchers have identified more than 100 graveyards on Charleston's peninsula dating to the late 1600s. Miller said the oldest existing grave site dates to 1680 and is located at the Circular Congregational Church graveyard. 

"What a treasure as a cultural attraction" are these sites, Miller said. "We are a heaven for graveyard people. Graveyards tell you who is important and who isn't." 

September 2016 (photo credit: Megan Wright)

This was Miller's second visit to my First Year Experience "Beyond the Grave" class. Last semester I posted this piece after her talk. 

Thank you Ruth Miller! You are a wealth of information and an excellent teacher and historian! 

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