First my thanks to Mayor Carlton Stevens for arranging this forum and for his support over the last three years for justice for Vick Cemetery. Also, to Councilmember Derrick Creech for his unstinting assistance with Lane Street Project clean-ups, even though the cemeteries are not in his district. Also, I acknowledge the pioneering efforts of former council member Gwen Burton and the late Councilmen A.P. Coleman and Bill Pitt, who began this fight 30 to 40 years ago.
With that said, I want to make clear that I am not here on behalf of the city. I am here as a native of Wilson, a public historian, and a descendant of Vick Cemetery’s dead to speak truth to power – the power that is embodied in Wilson city government, but also the power embodied in you, Wilson’s residents and Vick Cemetery’s descendant community.
I often talk about the principal of Sankofa, the West African proverb that holds that in order to move forward, we must know the past. To determine a way forward for Vick Cemetery, we have to understand how it came to be as it is. If you don’t know your own story, people can tell you anything they want to. They’ll have you thinking what was done to Vick is normal. That its condition is nobody’s fault, except maybe your own. So you have to know the truth in order to recognize the … untruth.
We need transparency, accountability, and action on Vick Cemetery. I come to you today with facts, and a few opinions, as you consider what demands to make for the respectful care of our ancestors.
So – let’s understand where we’re talking about. There are actually three historic cemeteries on the east end of Bishop L.N. Forbes St., formerly known as Lane Street. Coming from MLK, on your left, the first is Rountree Cemetery proper, which belongs to Rountree Missionary Baptist Church. It has not been in use for 75 years and is completely wooded. The second is Odd Fellows Cemetery, which is partially cleared and is the cemetery in which Lane Street Project focuses its clean-ups. (There’s one Saturday, by the way.) The third – the big open space stretching toward the bend in the road, is Vick Cemetery. All three have traditionally been lumped together under the name “Rountree Cemetery,” even on official records, such as this 1929 death certificate for my cousin Jesse Henderson Jr. Though the certificate states he was buried in Rountree, he was actually laid to rest in the cemetery we now know as Vick.
Wilson’s first Black public cemetery, which was located in the area of present-day Cemetery Street and Elvie Street, had serious drainage issues, was overcrowded, and was in the path of residential expansion. In 1913, the town of Wilson purchased 7.84 acres from Samuel and Annie Vick for use as a new public cemetery for African-Americans.
I don’t know of any photographs of funerals in Vick Cemetery, but the descendants of Sam Vick have graciously shared this image of the burial of 16 year-old Irma Vick in 1921 in Odd Fellows, which gives us a glimpse at what early burials at Vick Cemetery would have looked like.
Vick Cemetery was located outside city limits and was poorly maintained from the beginning. In 1925, Sam Vick requested that the city board of aldermen provide an awning for the “colored cemetery” and repair the roads leading to it, which were unpaved and often muddy and impassable. In contrast to the rough conditions at Vick, in 1922, over at Maplewood, the city’s whites-only cemetery, the city erected a handsome yellow brick building with an archway opening on to the cemetery’s Confederate monument. Above the arch is inscribed: “In this garden of shrubs, flowers and grass lie the quiet ashes of our departed loved ones in dreamless, protected, peaceful sleep.”
In 1933, with Vick already “congested,” Wilson purchased 38 acres from the Jesse R. Barnes family to establish Rest Haven cemetery. However, for another 20 or 25 years, burials continued at Vick Cemetery.
This aerial image shows Vick Cemetery in 1937. It looks pretty wide-open, but it already contained thousands of graves. The white spots you see are burial plots, which many families kept clear of weeds and swept to bare earth in accordance with tradition. (If you’re as old as I am, you remember yards swept like this.)
Here’s Vick Cemetery in 1940, and Maplewood the same year.
And here’s Vick in 1954, shortly before it was closed to burials.
By the mid-1960s, all three Lane Street cemeteries were seriously overgrown and being used as dump sites for stripped cars, old appliances and other trash, and there were public appeals for help cleaning them up.
By 1971, having been completely abandoned by the city, Vick Cemetery was just woods. I grew up in Bel Air Forrest, just southeast of the cemeteries, in the mid-1970s. We rode our bikes to Lane Street, which was then a narrow dirt road – it wasn’t paved until the late 1980s – to catch glimpses of the headstones back up in the woods.
In 1983, the Wilson Cemetery Commission “heard” the city owned Vick Cemetery and spent $8,000 on a partial clean-up. The work was halted by heavy rains and never completed.
In 1985, a man jogging on Lane Street found human bones exposed in a ditch. The police examined them and determined they were not from a recent death. The Wilson Daily Times contacted Bill Bartlett in Public Works, who advised that about 1980, the city attempted to define the road and found, because of the numerous graves in the area, only a 40- to 45-foot right of way could be allowed, compared to the usual 60-foot right of way. A county health department spokesperson said she would have to check to determine who was responsible for reburying the bones. Public Works said it wasn’t their job. A former county sanitation worker reported that he’d received a call from a woman who believed her relatives might be buried under Lane Street. Bartlett told the paper someone “was going to look into that for me. It could be that we need to find out who that could be and see if they want to do some digging out there to remove the remains.” I don’t know what happened to these bones.
In February 1989, the Wilson Daily Times ran a full-page feature on Vick and Odd Fellows Cemeteries. Speaking of Vick, Cemetery Commission chairman Earl Bradbury said, “Nobody at the city even knew it existed” until Ben Mincey Jr. brought it to the city’s attention. “Burial patterns are any which way. Nobody has any records of who was buried there. It just sat there and so nobody has any interest in it and it just grew up.” [“Nobody.” “It just grew up.” This is what I warned you about.] Bradbury went on to say that the city was considering packing the grave depressions with silt dredged from Toisnot Lake, and added, “People with relatives in the Vick Cemetery should show some interest in having the cemetery renovated,” and “it would be nice if the city could help with possibly a one-time grant.”
In 1990, the Daily Times printed an editorial urging the city to “correct the decades of neglect this cemetery has suffered.” This past Tuesday, 32 years later, the Times made basically the same appeal to its readers.
In 1991, the city ran a bush hog through Vick to clear “dense overgrowth.”
In January 1993 the Daily Times reported that public works director Charles Pittman had displayed at a council meeting “recent photos” of Vick cemetery showing a few headstones amid roughly cut vegetation. [Where are these photos?] Warren Shepard, a member of the Wilson Cemetery Commission, said council members should personally visit the Vick Cemetery site to understand the problems associated with site improvements. Hundreds of unmarked graves existed, many of which are identifiable only by depressions in the soil. Only a few graves are marked by tombstones. Cemetery Commission records show 37 burials made between 1949 and 1955, Shepard said, and the Wilson County Health Department condemned the cemetery as being unfit for burial in the late 1950s, according to a 1990 report from the Cemetery Commission. [I’ve requested both the burial records and this report. The Cemetery Commission says it doesn’t have them.]
Finally, after months of debate, in November 1994, Wilson City Council voted 4-2 to award a contract to PLT Construction Company to clean up Vick. Per council minutes, “Councilmember [James M.] Johnson said that he had a problem with relatives letting their families’ graves being left in as shoddy a condition as they are now; that he was in favor of getting the Vick Cemetery improved, but, morally, he was going to vote against it, as a message to those family members who had loved ones buried there.”
Section 4A of the job’s project description, entitled “Restoration and Improvement S.H. Vick Cemetery Lane St. Wilson, N.C.”: “All existing graves whether marked by a grave marker or not shall be identified and located so as to be able to be re-located after completion of the work. A detailed survey may be needed in order to ensure that graves are marked in the correct location after completion of the work. A drawing showing all graves shall be prepared for future reference. All existing tombstones shall be removed, labeled, and stored until after all work is completed.”
Section E: “All graves identified and located prior to construction shall be re-located and marked. Graves shall be marked in one of two ways: (1) Tombstones removed from graves prior to construction shall be reset at the proper grave locations. (2) Any unmarked graves which were located shall be marked by means of a small metal marker as typically used in cemeteries. A map showing the locations of all graves shall be furnished to the City of Wilson.”
NONE OF THIS WAS DONE.
City council minutes – at least as supplied to me per a public records request – do not reflect any further discussion about the work at Vick at that time.
However, in August 1995, the Wilson Daily Times suddenly announced that the city would erect a single monument in the middle of the cemetery. (The article also said the city would install lighting (which it never did), but fencing was not necessary.) “It would help, from a maintenance standpoint, to have one big monument,” City manager Ed Wyatt said, citing the cost and time required to mow around headstones. Wyatt stated that Vick cemetery contained approximately 200 marked graves and 75-100 “intact, legible” headstones and that the city’s public works department would store those stones after removal.
From the best information now available, Public Works stored the gravestones for a few years. It then destroyed them. Both removing and destroying gravemarkers was not only ill-advised, it was illegal.
In 2015, I began a blog documenting the African-American history and families of Wilson County. I found myself returning time and time again to the mystery of Lane Street cemeteries. In the fall of 2019, I sent multiple requests for public records to various Wilson officials requesting documents related to Vick Cemetery, including burial records, city council minutes, the PLT survey, and any records related to the removal, storage, and/or destruction of the Vick headstones.
Cemetery Commission chairperson Heather Goff advised that the Cemetery Commission had no burial records or other records related to Vick Cemetery. City Clerk Tonya West provided copies of relevant city council minutes from the 1990s.
In December 2019 I restated my request for a copy of the survey prepared by PLT when Vick cemetery was cleared, as well as documents related to the removal, storage and destruction of grave markers. In this letter I asserted for the first time that because, through the city’s actions, the locations of the graves in Vick cemetery have been obliterated, the city should commission a survey of the cemetery by ground-penetrating radar and make the results available to the public.
Finally, in February 2020, the city of Wilson confirmed that it could not produce any record of the identities of those whose grave markers were removed from Vick cemetery or provide any documentation of the decision to destroy those markers. It did, however, have this map PLT produced when the cemetery was cleared in 1995. Each tiny number marks a grave visible to PLT before they graded and laid soil over the cemetery. I counted – there are 1491.
Two years later, in February 2022, after considerable debate about the $30,000 cost, Wilson City Council agreed to fund a ground-penetrating radar survey of Vick Cemetery.
At the time, I told the Wilson Times that though past actions could not be corrected, it is vital for us to have a sense of how many people are buried at Vick. Right now, people who drive past Vick Cemetery just see a big, empty field. If we aren’t even able to tell people how many people are buried there and where they are buried, it would be difficult for Vick to regain its place in people’s consciousness as a sacred space.
New South Associates performed the radar survey in June 2022. The following month, Vick Cemetery began to give up its secrets. When George Freeney Jr. flew his drone over the drought-stricken landscape, this is what he photographed. Each small green lozenge you see is a grave.
On April 11, 2023, having seen or heard nothing further about the survey, via public records request, I asked for a copy of the GPR report. One week later, the Wilson Times, the mayor, city council members, and I received the 143-page report. It is dated September 7, 2022. And it is devastating.
There are not a few hundred graves in Vick. The graves do not lie every which way. They are arranged in parallel rows. And there are more than 4,224. The cemetery is FULL.
Let’s look a little more closely at one sector of the grid.
The small orange box at top left is part of Vick’s parking lot. There are 18 graves underneath it. The green line is the concrete sidewalk leading to the central monument. it, too, lies on top of graves. The pink T-shape shows utility trenches of some sort. The transmission pole is outside the area surveyed, but inside the cemetery’s boundaries, and surely cuts through graves.
A summary of the survey’s findings:
- Vick’s 4224+ graves lie in rows oriented northeast to southwest.
- The cemetery would have been visibly highly populated when its gravemarkers were in place.
- Most of the graves lie less than 60 cm (or 24 inches) below the surface. This may be in part due to scraping of the surface done after the removal of stones in 1995.
- The graves under the central monument and along some edges of the cemetery could not be surveyed. Thus, there are likely many more graves than 4224.
- Three utility lines of some sort were detected under the surface, which likely damaged or destroyed the graves in their path. There’s also a buried pathway original to the cemetery.
A summary of the report’s recommendations:
- The underground anomalies the survey identified as likely graves should be treated as graves.
- Ground disturbance within the cemetery should be avoided, and subsurface disturbance will require relocation of graves in accordance with state law.
- Additional utility disturbance must be done in consultation with North Carolina’s Office of State Archaeology.
- Additional signage and possibly a fence should be erected to indicate the land is a cemetery and should be accorded due respect.
Never again will the city of Wilson claim it does not know who owns Vick Cemetery.
Tuesday, the Wilson Times reported that city council had voted last week to fence in Vick Cemetery, in whole or in part, to protect it from further damage and desecration by trespassers. However, as we all know too well, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. May we remind council that erecting fences involves digging fence posts, in other words, subsurface disturbance, which may damage shallow graves. While the cemetery should be protected from trespassers, so should it be from protected from more hasty decision-making.
The Times also noted that several months ago council turned over responsibility for Vick to the Cemetery Commission. This is where it should have been all along. However, I note in caution that the Commission historically has been a poor steward of records related to Vick Cemetery. Also, please be aware that the city’s chief financial officer conducted an internal audit of the Commission in December 2021. Though limited to payroll data, the audit report identified significant points of improvement needed in this critical function. Though Vick Cemetery has already benefitted from attention the Commission has paid to its landscaping, Vick descendants and other stakeholders should demand transparency and accountability as the Commission begins to receive and administer funds earmarked for Vick.
While the cemetery can never be restored to its original semblance, it can be reclaimed as a sacred space. The time for cheap fixes at Vick is over. When the complaining about the costs of righting these wrongs begins, remind anyone you need to, as A.P. Coleman did 30 years ago, of all the money the city saved neglecting its own property during Vick’s first 80 years. Also remind them that, in 2021, while quibbling over whether to pay for the survey that led to this report, the city budgeted a $125,000 repair of the 100 year-old archway at the entrance of Maplewood Cemetery. In other words, the city prioritized the repair of a decorative structure at Maplewood over the repair of the breaches of trust created by decades of damage and disrespect to actual graves at Vick.
As a start, I suggest that Vick Cemetery’s story be told on interpretive signage at the site so that no one else forgets that this big empty field is actually the resting place of 4224 of your people and mine — people who helped build Wilson and deserve their own dreamless, protected, peaceful sleep.
Beyond that, what would you like to see happen?
Mayor Carlton Stevens and two of Wilson’s seven council members, Gillettia Morgan and Derrick Creech, came to last night’s open forum. There were no representatives of the Cemetery Commission there. Nor the Public Works Department. I am grateful to the many concerned citizens who came to listen and learn and share their thoughts about the future of Vick Cemetery. I was moved by the presence of 96 year-old Henrietta Hines McIntosh, whose father Charles Hines was buried in Vick Cemetery in 1935. I am honored to lead this fight.
Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your comments, concerns, and suggestions for the future of Vick Cemetery.