The grave markers in Brutontown Cemetery are stark reminders of segregation and the untold African-American narratives in the Greenville community. Amid a tangle of vines and roots, the stones point to residents – some believed to be slaves – who were buried at the hillside cemetery carved out for the indigent after the Civil War.
Furman graduate Emilee O’Brien ’17 and Communication Studies Associate Professor Brandon Inabinet aim to not only remember those who are buried but to also show the importance of telling their stories. This was the goal of the March alternative spring break they organized as part of the recommendations of Furman’s Task Force on Slavery and Justice.
Representing a diverse range of majors, 11 Furman students participated in the “Seeking Abraham: Slavery and Public Memory” alternative spring break with service learning in Greenville and Charleston. In Greenville, the students researched family records of those interred at Brutontown, built relationships with Brutontown residents, advocated for the preservation of a Jim Crow-era clinic, McClaren Medical Shelter, and visited the Upcountry History Museum and the Museum and Library of Confederate History.
In Charleston, they visited McLeod Plantation, which was built by slaves in the 1850s, took a Gullah Geechee culture tour, learned about racial reconciliation initiatives at a local church, met with Furman Board of Trustees Chair Alec Taylor ’75 and toured the Old Slave Mart.
Adare Smith ’20 of Greenwood, South Carolina, said researching Furman Library archives and visiting McLeod Plantation were the most memorable for her.
“I love history,” she said. “So being able to step in the same places and touch the same things that figures from the past touched was really moving for me.”
Furman students became engrossed in resources and databases such as Ancestry.com and FindAGrave.com. They presented findings to Brutontown community member Shelby Richards, who was “blown away” by the details students uncovered. Marriage certificates and records about military service, births and deaths all helped piece together lost narratives.
“Because, a headstone doesn’t tell a story,” said O’Brien, who is committed to sustaining a dialog with Brutontown.
She says this particular component of the experience went a long way toward building bonds with the community’s stakeholders and telling stories.
“We have the privilege of great resources at Furman and a strong desire to share those resources in a mutually beneficial relationship,” O’Brien said.
For sophomore history major Jens Par, the multi-faceted experience was the very essence of engaged learning and The Furman Advantage.
“My group opened up and shared their personal experiences throughout the trip,” said Par. “That taught me to be more aware of my surroundings and that I have so much more to learn.”
Smith, an English major with a passion for the arts, was struck by the sheer power of storytelling.
“Stories are gateways into history and can act as agents of change,” she said. “This spring break I learned that I can tell stories — stories that educate, that share experience, stories that effect change.”
For more information, contact Emilee O’Brien, Post Baccalaureate Fellow, Social Justice and Community Engagement, at email@example.com.