Another LSP-relevant article from Wilson Times‘ Drew C. Wilson, this time reporting on Wilson Cemetery Commission’s most recent meeting. See the original article, which posted online on 13 January 2022, here. See my comments on highlighted portions of the article below.
“The Wilson Cemetery Commission chair says the city might use ground-penetrating radar to locate graves at Vick Cemetery, where hundreds of African Americans are interred.
“Chairman Charlie Pat Farris Jr. said the commission currently manages and maintains the city-owned Maplewood and Rest Haven cemeteries, but plans are afoot to add Vick Cemetery to the panel’s oversight responsibilities. The commission enforces state and local laws regulating burial grounds.
“Vick Cemetery, located on 7.84 acres of land off Bishop L.N. Forbes Street, was purchased by the city of Wilson in 1913 and operated until the late 1950s when it was condemned.
“Historians believe the cemetery contains 500 to 2,000 African American graves.
“‘In 1990, the cemetery was littered with household discards, such as refrigerators, stoves, bedsprings and trash. A tangle of bushes, vines and small trees had reclaimed the cemetery,’ The Wilson Daily Times reported in a 1996 story about the cemetery.
“In May 1996, the city of Wilson installed an obelisk at the site to memorialize those buried there.
“Today, Vick Cemetery has no other markers. As a result, graves’ exact location is a mystery.
“Farris suggested marking each grave with a cross or a small headstone once they’re found.
“He said city officials asked the commission to obtain cost estimates to mark the graves’ location with ground-penetrating radar.
“‘When the imaging is done, we will know exactly where all the graves are,” Farris said. ‘The removal of the headstones back in the mid-’90s, nobody nowadays seems to take responsibility for it, and nobody knows what happened to the markers. We can’t even trace whose names are there, although we are told through some old books that we might have the names of about 400 people.‘
“Farris said the city has no records indicating who is buried at Vick Cemetery.
“‘But we can at least pay homage and honor their memory by saying, “This is where a person is buried” and to be respectful when you are out walking on it,’ Farris said.
“The radar marking project would cost about $5,000 per acre, he said.
“‘I know it has gotten to be more expensive than they first thought, but we will have to just wait and see,’ said Wilson City Councilman Derrick Creech.
“Creech said he would meet with city officials this week about placing Vick Cemetery under the cemetery commission’s umbrella. He said that responsibility should have been turned over ‘a long time ago.’
“‘It should have been, but it has not been given to us,’ said commission member JoAnn Hickman. ‘We need to know from the city when everything has been taken care of through the mayor and then we can proceed with Vick, but right now, we have no say over Vick.’
“Farris said Mayor Carlton Stevens directed the commission to prepare a list of items it would need to maintain the cemetery ‘so that we would be able to hit the ground running if it’s approved after we have the imaging done.’
“Creech said the city hasn’t taken up the matter since before Christmas.
“‘Until we get together and the city and the cemetery commission get together and make a decision on what we are going to do, right now we are just talking,’ Hickman said.
“The board tabled discussion on the wish list to request more details on some items. The list includes a tractor, several lawn mowers, soil and cemetery software.
“A 1990 Wilson Cemetery Commission report cited in a Times story indicated the Wilson County Health Department condemned Vick Cemetery in the late 1950s ‘as being unfit for human burial.’
“The city cleared the land of overgrowth in 1991 and removed the remaining grave markers from 1991-96.
“Decades of neglect allowed litter, overgrowth and vandalism to proliferate. Many Wilson families disinterred their late relatives from Vick Cemetery and had them buried in the nearby Rest Haven Cemetery.
“‘We are not talking about going back and correcting things from the past,’ said Castonoble Hooks, a concerned citizen who attended Monday’s cemetery commission meeting. ‘We are talking about from this point forward, start planning with more equity, start planning with more fairness.’
“Farris said the present commission has tried to make improvements at both Maplewood Cemetery, a predominantly white graveyard, and Rest Haven Cemetery, a predominantly African American graveyard.
“‘I appreciate it, and all I am asking for is more of the same,’ Hooks said at the meeting, held in the commission’s Maplewood Cemetery office. ‘Look how beautiful this cemetery is, how it is bordered with trees. How come Rest Haven Cemetery is not bordered with trees? It is an ongoing process here, but it seems like a patchwork effort over there.’
“Farris agreed, but he said that wasn’t the current commission’s doing.
“‘All we are asking for is equity,’ Creech said. ‘We are asking that the things that are done here can be done over there. We are not looking for anything extra. What has happened in the past, we know it. It’s history, but we’ve got to move on.’
“Hickman said Maplewood Cemetery was ‘laid out with what you call “old Wilson money.”‘
“‘These people came together and they designed and they laid out their cemetery,’ Hickman said. ‘But then when you go over to Rest Haven, it was not organized in such a manner; therefore, we are now trying. We are working on it.’
“Hickman said the current commission had only a few years to accomplish these things.
“‘In five years, you can’t do a whole lot. We can only do so much in five years. We have got so many things we have been working on,’ she said. ‘Give us a chance to do what we are trying to do. We’ve got some work in the making. We can’t do everything right now.'”
- “Might use”? This is a worrisome equivocation.
- I would put the estimate of the number of graves well north of 2000. See this survey, which shows 1491 grave locations detected visually in 1995.
- City council authorized removal of the grave markers in 1996. That is well-documented. Their fate is more mysterious, but only in the details. The city’s Public Works Department stored the markers for several years, then, around 2002, destroyed them.
- I am not aware of any “old books” naming Vick’s dead. There is this volume, published in 2015, which attempts to identify burials based on death certificates. The effort — and result — are complicated by the imprecise and indiscriminate designation of Rountree, Odd Fellows, and Vick Cemeteries as the “Rountree” or “colored” cemetery. As noted, the Cemetery Commission currently has no records of Vick’s burials.
- In a nod toward restorative justice, surely the City of Wilson can find $30,000 to locate the graves of thousands of its citizens. This balking at spending a pittance to redress the wrongs done at Vick in the 1990s (much less its neglect during the 40+ years it was an active city cemetery) is dismaying.
- By its own definition, “Wilson Cemetery Commission is responsible for maintaining and operating publicly owned cemeteries.” Vick is a cemetery. Vick is publicly owned. It should have been under the Cemetery Commission’s umbrella all along. [Historical side note: there was once a Colored Cemetery Commission. I have found only one reference to it, which did not identify its members. Were records related to Vick and its predecessor Oakdale (the Cemetery Street cemetery) in the charge of this Commission? If so, were those records ever turned over to the “white” Commission, which seems to have exercised some sort of oversight over Rest Haven from the start? Or did it? Did the Colored Commission handle Rest Haven’s records until Wilson finally began to integrate its public facilities in the 1960s? If so, this might explain why the current Commission has no early Rest Haven burial records either.
- A word about “decades of neglect.” Late twentieth-century public debates about what to do with Vick were charged with recriminations that its families should have done more to keep it up and should never have allowed it to deteriorate to wilderness. Let’s be clear. Vick Cemetery was founded as a public cemetery and remains city-owned. Never, anywhere, has anyone suggested that the upkeep of Maplewood Cemetery and its Confederate monument were the responsibility of the families of their dead. The construction of this sentence obscures the actors. The City of Wilson allowed litter, overgrowth, and vandalism through decades of neglect.