Woman on crusade to reclaim long-forgotten cemetery

Since she was a girl, Sonya Hodges had been told the cemetery where her grandfather was buried was gone.

In July, she went to see for herself.

What she found behind Interstate Polymer Group, just outside Columbia, was a scattering of headstones in an abandoned cemetery.

Now Hodges, 47, is asking the company off South Beltline Boulevard to donate the cemetery to a local church so it can be preserved.

She hopes to raise money for a monument - to her grandfather Sancho Thompson and other veterans of World War I's distinguished 371st Infantry Regiment, whom she discovered are buried there.

What began as a project to compile Hodges' genealogy has become a mission to honor the African-American infantrymen trained at Fort Jackson and delivered to the blood-stained trenches of France in April 1918.

"A lot of people don't know, to this day, that it's a cemetery back there," Hodges said.

Unkempt or abandoned cemeteries like the one Hodges has adopted are numerous throughout the Southern countryside, said Bobby Donaldson, a history professor at the University of South Carolina.

Few family, church or society cemeteries are noted on maps, and records about them can be hard to find - if they exist at all.

Donaldson fears memories of where they're located are fading with the generations.


Hodges has spent years trying to satisfy her curiosity about her ancestors.

Now she's documented five generations of South Carolinians on her mother's side, back to an enslaved woman named Lydia McCoy and her six children, born on a Sumter plantation. She compiled her work into a 10-page brochure prepared in time for a family reunion in September.

Her work brought her into contact with historians and librarians across town.

Once she learned of the renown of her grandfather's Army unit - a top-performing regiment despite the racial discrimination that the soldiers faced - she got in touch with the French Embassy. It led her to an organization that sent her a patch like the one that her grandfather would have worn on his uniform.

It was Hodges' mother who sparked her interest in genealogy.

She always said Hodges' grandfather was buried at the cemetery before a factory came in and built over it.

In July, Hodges and one of her sons asked for permission to pass through the security gates at Interstate Polymer Group, making their way to the cemetery that once served a pair of churches and people who lived in black communities nearby, from Arthurtown to Lykesland.

The cemetery, divided by a railroad spur, is on an outpost of the plant's property that is mown but otherwise unused.

"I was just astonished to learn that there were still the headstones back there, so many of them because, for so many years, my mama said, 'That cemetery isn't there anymore, Sonya, stop asking about it.' ... She said, 'It's not nice to disturb the dead, so leave it alone.'"

But Hodges couldn't leave it alone.

"I love a mystery," she said. "I love to solve mysteries."

Because the cemetery extends past a chain-link fence into the overgrown right-of-way of the Norfolk Southern Railroad, Hodges still doesn't know if her grandfather's grave is marked.

She has enlisted the help of a lawyer who has agreed to do free legal work for Bethlehem Baptist Church, drawing up documents that would transfer ownership of the cemetery to the small congregation that worships now in a sanctuary it built on Bluff Road.

St. Clair Corbin, a deacon, said the church was founded in 1871 atop a hill at what is now Shop Road and Beltline Boulevard but moved to its current location in 1948. Corbin said the move was the result of litigation over who owned the land beneath the church.

Burials, though, were allowed at the cemetery until the early 1960s. He did not know why.

Coincidentally, Corbin was part of a group that visited with plant officials in 2007, hoping to have the cemetery rejoined with Bethlehem Baptist. The church would like to preserve the cemetery as a historical site, said Corbin and deacon Roosevelt Diamond Sr.

A company lawyer is prepared to consider the proposal to transfer the land, said Burgess Hildreth, vice president for human resources for Interstate Polymer in Bradenton, Fla.

"Sonya's kind of taken the bull by the horns, and she's done a good job," Hildreth said.


Hodges knew the name for the cemetery - Childs Cemetery, found in a directory she ran across at the S.C. Department of Archives and History.

But finding names - or, more importantly, locations - of community burial plots can be a challenge for those researching family history.

"People know them almost by instinct or memory," USC's Donaldson said. "There's nothing really written down to say, 'down this road and to the left.'"

But such cemeteries are important historical resources, particularly for African-Americans because of the lack of documents inherent to slavery.

"They're sacred spaces, and they should very much be preserved," Donaldson said.

"If you're trying to piece together your family history and you don't have these spaces, many of which carry headstones, then it will be in some ways a history cut short."

Hodges, for example, couldn't find her grandfather's name in census records. On documents she found - a marriage license, military record, a death certificate - his first name is spelled variously Sancho, Sanco and Sandro.

"She's gone through I don't know how many books, taken trips to the library downtown, the National Archives," said son Terry Scipio Jr.

"Sometimes it can be a little nerve-racking, but you can appreciate it because she's actually taken the time to find out where she came from."

Hodges would like nothing more than to see her grandfather's final resting place.

She loves history and found herself forever connected to veterans after two of her brothers were called to service in Vietnam.

Joe Long, education curator at the Confederate Relic Room, said Hodges' efforts are timely: The 100th anniversary of World War I comes around in 2014.

Long said the men of South Carolina's 371st Infantry were good soldiers, good fighters. But perhaps most impressive is their performance after being shunned by their own Army and placed under French command.

They had language barriers, had to turn in their equipment for unfamiliar rifles, gas masks and inferior machine guns.

Even their daily food was unfamiliar.

"They maintained their place as a top regiment despite the extra problems, the extra obstacles - in a way, despite bureaucratic friendly fire," Long said.

The men of South Carolina's 371st Infantry "received a homecoming parade and a ceremony here in Columbia - made a splash at the time - but were pretty much forgotten for a long time," he said.

Long was unaware of any monument or marker to the soldiers in this country, although there is one in France.

"Part of what she's doing is uncovering history," Long said of Hodges' efforts. "And it's important history; it really is."