Kinsler family reunites at burial ground of enslaved ancestors

Senator John Scott welcomes the Kinslers to Blythewood. | Photos: Barbara Ball

BLYTHEWOOD – A line of cars with license plates from New York, Georgia and beyond slowly turned off Kinsler Road on the western edge of Blythewood 29016 and through an open farm gate into a 400-acre horse farm where rolling fields, manicured to the nines, glistened green in the bright afternoon sunshine as far as the eye could see.

As the cars parked in the grassy field, the folks stepping out of them laughed quietly and hugged each other, then walked somberly toward a clump of tall pines that shaded a circle of ground marked with tiny grey stones topped with small vases of flowers. The visitors milled about in the shade, pausing reverently at each stone.

The stones marked the graves of their ancestors – slaves who died hundreds of years ago on the land where they are now buried. The cool, shaded cemetery, in its simplicity, was as breathtaking as the contrasting sunny green pastures that surrounded it, dotted with giant cross-country jumps and riding arenas – a horseman’s paradise.

Mary Burnside, the farm’s owner, greeted the visitors one by one and welcomed them warmly. It was apparent there was already a strong bond between Burnside and her guests.

Except for Burnside, the people buried and the people visiting the buried – both white and African-American – belonged to one family – the Kinsler family.

They had gathered for a family reunion and to honor their ancestors.

At 2:30 p.m. last Thursday, everyone took their seats beneath white tents. Bobby Clark, Chairperson for the 2019 Kinsler family reunion, welcomed the 60 or so family members.

Burnside then spoke, recalling how her late husband, Richard (Dick) Burnside, accidentally discovered the graves when he was bush hogging the land some 50 years ago.

In the disturbed soil, there were many small stone columns driven into the ground as grave markers, Burnside said as she related how her husband felt an obligation to repair the stones he had hit and to mark them clearly so that they would not be hit again. While Dick Burnside didn’t know who the people were that were buried on his property, he began caring for the cemetery, something he would continue to do until his death last year. He did not, at the time, know if anyone would ever be able to tell him just who, exactly, these people were.

Fast forward about 30 years when Brenda Kinsler (who is African-American) of Washington, D.C. and Charlie Smith (who is white) of Charleston, S.C., met online while researching their separate family histories.

“It didn’t take long before we realized that our ancestors were the same family – the Kinsler family – who had lived on the Burnside property since the 17th century, until it was purchased by the Burnsides in the 1970’s,” Kinsler said.

In their research, they learned that prior to the Burnsides owning the land, it was owned by Smith’s great, great, great grandfather, John Herman Kinsler, a signer of the South Carolina Ordinance of Secession, State Senator, State Legislator, Chairman of the Senate Education Committee and Chairman of the Board of the South Carolina College, now the University of South Carolina.

They also learned that Brenda Kinsler was a descendent of African slaves owned by John Herman Kinsler and, therefore, bore his name.

Brenda Kinsler’s and Charles Smith’s remarkable story did not end with the discovery that their families were the same. Their story went on to reunite all the descendants of John Herman Kinsler – both his African-American descendants and his Swiss German descendants.

In 2004, Kinsler and Smith traveled to the Cedar Creek community where the Burnside farm is located. They wanted to see where their ancestors had been enslaved. During that first trip, they visited a few related properties in the area looking for clues as to where the Kinsler slaves were buried.

“I was hoping to find the cemetery of my ancestors,” Brenda Kinsler said. At her urging, she and Smith pulled up to Burnside’s house and knocked on the door to ask if any old cemeteries were on the property.

“His face lit up,” Smith wrote in a memoir, “and he said, ‘Give me a minute and I’ll get my truck and show you right now.’ It was a toss-up who was more excited at that moment, Brenda and I who had information and no cemetery or Mr. Burnside who had a cemetery and no information,” Smith recalled.

Keith Kinsler presents a Kinsler family shirt to Mary Burnsides, making her an official member of the Kinsler family.

That chance meeting on the internet more than a decade ago has since changed the entire dynamic of a family born into the South Carolina slave-holding culture, and it gave the man who had tended that sacred space an answer to the question of just who these people were who were buried on his land.

After Burnside’s death, the care and keeping of the slave cemetery has been continued by his wife, Mary, a longtime horsewoman in the Blythewood community who keeps a stable of horses across the road from the cemetery.

To show their gratitude for what the Burnsides have done for their ancestors’ graves, slave descendent Keith Kinsler presented Mary Burnside with a Kinsler family t-shirt, declaring her an official member of the Kinsler family.

A plaque, donated by Burnside, was then unveiled to commemorate the cemetery and the Kinsler slaves buried there.

Following the ceremony, the family traveled to Charleston where they joined the Swiss-German Kinsler descendants for a continuation of the Kinsler family reunion on July 26 – 28.

A book about the Kinsler family and their ancestors, by Cynthia White, titled ‘From Whence We Came – a history of the African-American Kinslers’ is available online from Amazon books.

“We would love to help others do what we have done, to find our ancestors and to know where they lived and where they are buried,” Brenda Kinsler said.

For more information about the Kinslers and how they traced their ancestry, contact Brenda Kinsler at 1-202-407-3290.

The Kinsler family gathered around the plaque donated by Mary Burnside to commemorate the graves of their enslaved ancestors who are now buried beneath the trees behind them.