Last night I had the pleasure of joining nearly one hundred guests at “Nat Fuller’s Feast,” an event commemorating the 150th anniversary of a mixed-race fancy dinner hosted by a recently-freed former slave, Nat Fuller (1812-1866), the premier catering chef of mid-nineteenth-century Charleston. It was a wonderful feast, populated by the most charming and interesting guests one can imagine, and I am honored to have been invited to the table. If Nat Fuller’s story has eluded your attention, you can find a detailed profile of his life and career at the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative’s new online exhibit, Nat Fuller’s Feast: The Life and Legacy of An Enslaved Cook in Charleston.
We can thank Dr. David Shields of the University of South Carolina for the exhaustive research into Nat Fuller’s life, and for authoring the biographical profile that you’ll find online. Summarizing the details of that biographical work, Dr. Shields lamented that he could not find the location of Fuller’s grave. That comment aroused my attention because here at CCPL, in our Charleston Archive, we have the City of Charleston’s extant “Return of Deaths,” or weekly ledgers of interments, dating from July 1819 through December 1926. Arriving at work this morning (a bit late and sluggish after the big five-hour feast), I went straight to the “Return of Deaths” and immediately found Nat Fuller.
According to this manuscript ledger, Nat Fuller, a 54-year-old black male, a native of Charleston, died of “fever, typhoid” at his residence at 77 (now 103) Church Street on 16 December 1866. He was buried at the “Heriott [sic] Street Cemetery,” which is a little-known patch of land just a stone’s throw north of the Charleston city limit, and in close proximity to several other large cemeteries created in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Heriot Street was laid out in the mid-nineteenth century on property of the Heriot family, and by 1866 an African American cemetery, measuring approximately 150 feet by 187 feet, had been established on the south side of the street. No deed identifying the owner of the property can be found, but between the 1860s and the 1930s the cemetery was variously called the Heriot Street Cemetery, the Trinity Colored Heriot Street Cemetery, and the Centenary Burial Ground. Only a handful of headstones remain standing today, but, according to the “Return of Deaths,” this cemetery holds at least 300 unmarked graves.
If you’d like to visit Nat Fuller’s final resting place, you can set your GPS coordinates to n32 48.955 , w79 57.137, which will take you to Heriot Street. From downtown Charleston, simply take King Street north and turn left onto Heriot Street at the new fire station. I’ve been by this site many times before without knowing about Nat Fuller’s amazing story, so I’ll take a closer look when next I’m in his neighborhood. Perhaps one day there will be a marker in his honor at this overgrown, forgotten site.