Lane Street Project: the Mercer siblings.

In June 1964, the Rocky Mount Telegram reported the tragic death of two teenaged siblings from Spring Hope, Nash County. Seventeen year-old Nora Jane Mercer had drowned trying to save her 16 year-old brother William Earl Mercer, who also drowned in a pond a few miles north of Bailey.

Rocky Mount Telegram, 12 June 1964.

Nora Mercer’s death certificate listed her cause of death as “drowning … while swimming in farm pond” and described her accident as “trying to save her brother.” William Toney’s Funeral Home, still active today in Spring Hope, handled the burial, which took place in … Rountree Cemetery? In 1964?!?

William Mercer’s death certificate also lists Rountree Cemetery in Wilson as his burial place. Why would two Spring Hope children be buried more than 20 miles away in Wilson?

I first wondered if this were a family cemetery — Rountree is not an uncommon surname here — located just over the Nash County line in Wilson County. (I don’t know of any such cemetery, but I wondered.) However, the double obituary for the siblings made clear that they were indeed buried in Rountree (or its sister cemeteries, Vick and Odd Fellows, collectively and confusingly known as Rountree). Further, their funeral was also in Wilson — at Piney Grove Free Will Baptist Church.

Rocky Mount Telegram, 14 June 1964.

The obituary gives Nora and William Mercer’s parents as Mr. and Mrs. Willie Austin. However, this was likely their stepfather and mother (and the surname, per the death certificate, was Alston.) Louise Alston was informant for the certificates, and she named the children’s parents as William Mercer and Louise Webb. William Mercer and Louvenia [actually, Louisianna] Webb were married in Wilson County in September 1946. Both were Wilson County natives. It appears that they divorced, and Louise Webb Mercer married an Alston. So, as we can establish that the Mercer children did have close ties to Wilson, we can be more certain that they were buried in one of the set of cemeteries on (former) Lane Street collectively called Rountree Cemetery.

Now to the most puzzling fact — 1964.

This is an aerial view of Vick, Odd Fellows, and Rountree Cemeteries in 1964.

Vick Cemetery had been condemned in the late 1950s as unfit for human burial. (Vick is the most likely of site of the children’s burials as it was a public cemetery, they were not members of Rountree Missionary Baptist Church, and there is no evidence that their father was an Odd Fellow.) By 1964, all three cemeteries were severely overgrown, with none of the bare-earth family plots so readily observable in earlier decades.

I checked Joan L. Howell’s Wilson County Cemeteries, Vol. V: The Two City-Owned African-American Cemeteries, which contains a list of 600+ burials from the last 25 years or so  these cemeteries were active as burial sites. In her searches of local death certificates, the latest burials Howell found were three from 1960, six from 1961, and one from 1962. Thus, as far as now known, Nora Jane and William Earl Mercer were the last people buried in Vick, Odd Fellows, or Rountree Cemeteries.

Many thanks to Noelle Vollaro for bringing the Mercer siblings to my attention.

2 comments

  1. remember this sad event quite well. there Mother was an acquaintance of MY Mother. the entire community mourned this tragedy.

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