Yesterday, I received 961 pages in response to my 23 July 2023 public records request. Some of documents duplicate information already in my possession, such the final GPR report. Other pages duplicate one another, as various email threads are forwarded or responded to by multiple City employees and elected officials. In a series of posts, I’ll share the documents I consider most informative, both substantively and in terms of what they reveal about the City of Wilson’s collective approach to dealing with Vick Cemetery (and me).
First, the request itself. With (1), I sought documents that would explain New South Associates’ specific reasons for returning in June to mark the edges of Vick. With (2), the scope of the survey work Bartlett was contracted to perform. With (3), in the absence of any communication from the City, I sought documents revealing any plans for work at Vick. With (4), again in the vacuum created by the City’s lack of responsiveness, I sought documents that would show whether they were speaking with subject matter experts about Vick. With (5), I sought to ascertain whether the City was communicating with anyone in the descendant community.
Let me cue up the first exhibit. After the May 11 Vick Cemetery open forum, Councilmember Gillettia Morgan and Mayor Carlton Stevens asked me to send them some quick-hit items they could take to council quickly. I sent this email on May 24. (The highlights were later added by someone to whom the email was forwarded.)
On June 16, after learning the City had not and would not obtain a survey map be provided for the survey I’d requested, I sent Morgan and Stevens this email (highlights added by someone else):
Neither Morgan nor Stevens responded to me. Rather, one of them forwarded the email to City Manager Grant Goings. Goings forwarded both my emails to the mayor and council with this message:
Let’s break this down:
- “Several have complained ‘goalposts being constantly moved’ on Vick Cemetery and some have concluded that true resolution is not goal of all parties.”
Goings wrote this email on June 16, less than two months after the City turned over the Vick Cemetery GPR report it had been sitting on for more than six months. It’s not clear who “several” are. Councilmembers? City officials? More critically, how could the goalposts be moved when we have no idea where they should be set? We learned only in April of the approximate number of graves in Vick. Only two of seven council members came to the open forum convened for discussion of the report. City officials do not respond to emails about Vick. They do not ask questions. They don’t share information. The City has yet to propose any kind of “resolution,” much less a true one, for Vick’s future. Instead, city representatives talk behind their hands and accuse Vick descendants of acting in bad faith.
- “Please read the two emails below. The first email request [sic] that the 4 corners of the cemetery be surveyed. The second email blasts the City and claims we are doing things ‘on the cheap’ and ‘behind closed doors’, for doing exactly what was requested in the first email. Intentionally moving goalposts to continue conflict is not anything new. It is a tactic used frequently in politics by all kinds of groups. However, it is rare to actually catch proof in writing like we have below.”
First, on 30 December 2019, in my first letter to mayor and council, among other things I stated: “For clarification of the boundaries of Vick cemetery and the Rountree and Odd Fellows cemeteries adjacent to it, I request a plat map of the property.” So, actually, I’ve been quite consistent on this point. However, Goings is correct that my May 24 email was inartfully worded. In my experience, getting a survey to determine the boundaries of a parcel of land results in a survey map that shows rights-of-way, property lines, surface features, etc. It never occurred to me that the City would ask the surveyor to do no more than place stakes. Hence my June 16 email to Morgan and Stevens asking for clarity — an email that Goings and the anonymous “several” see as a smoking gun of bad intent.
Since 2019, when I began asking questions about Vick, the City’s posture has been defensive, rather than engaging. My persistent attempts to get to the truth about Vick have required that I grope about in the dark because the City will shine no light on the subject without compulsion. I’m puzzled that Grant characterizes my requests for information and action as “political.” I’m not a representative or agent of the political body that pulled headstones out of the ground, lost or destroyed them, and ran power poles through two cemeteries. I have no motive to “continue conflict,” but I know who might.
- “I’m not sure where ‘once again the City is trying to deal with Vick on the cheap’ comes from. My recollection is that Council spent over triple what was originally requested for the radar scan. You also have instructed us to find attractive, and more expensive, fencing options, etc.”
Goings isn’t sure because he hasn’t asked. Let me refresh his recollection re the GPR scan. When the mayor first raised this issue to council, a Cemetery Commission employee hazarded a guess about the cost. When the City actually got a quote from industry leader New South Associates, the cost was much higher. After some grumbling among council members, they agreed to pay it. As for the attractive, expensive fencing options, Goings is once again missing the point. Maybe the fence is workable option. Maybe it’s not. But before we talk about pretty fences, we need to talk about these power poles. And the unscanned graves in the public right-of-way. And other matters that more likely than not will cost money. (Money that doesn’t have to come from local taxpayers, by the way. Other cities and organizations are getting tens of thousands of dollars in grants or other funding for historic African-American cemeteries. You know why? Because they’re actively seeking it.)
- “Considering the numerous false allegations to date, the evidence below, and the fact that Ms. Henderson has publicly and in writing falsely accused your Communications Director, Assistant City Manager, City Engineer, and City Manager of being untruthful and/or unethical, I think it would be wise for the City to establish alternative communication relationships to represent Vick’s best interests. In no means do I wish to diminish the valuable research Ms. Henderson has contributed or the volunteer efforts she leads to clean up the private cemeteries. I do not know her nor intend to judge or defame her as she has done to staff. However, the City relying on her as the ‘voice’ of the public on this issue is appearing to be, at best, a questionable practice…”
The first part apparently is reference to my comments here. While strongly critical of certain actions taken by public officials, my remarks are in no way defamatory. I suggest Goings brush up on the First Amendment. This paragraph does get at the heart of things though. Goings (and perhaps the “several”) don’t like my style. They apparently don’t like my refusal to shut up or back down. I get it. No one wants to dwell on destroyed headstones and power poles in cemeteries, and I’m sure it would be easier to deal with someone compliant and undemanding. But Grant Goings doesn’t get to decide who represents “Vick’s best interests” or who acts as the “voice of the public” concerning this sacred space. (Thanks for the compliment though.)
Four days later, Councilman Michael Bell responded to Goings:
Bell repeats the moving goalposts charge and makes a startling suggestion. “… [W]e need to establish if the additional graves are within or out of the surveyed boundary. If the additional graves are within the surveyed boundary then if would be our responsibility.” Does Bell not understand that the surveyed boundary marks modern boundaries, not the boundaries of the cemetery when it was in use? The deed for Vick notes it covers 7.84 acres. The present-day estimate is 7.75 acres. That .09 acres is likely the strip of land now included in the public right-of-way. We know there are graves in that strip of land. Is Bell actually suggesting that the City bears no responsibility for what happens to these dead?
“As I said, we need to be careful,” Bell continues. “Let’s hope the fencing will resolved [sic] this situation. Moving the goalposts will not help the effort. If we allow the area of the cemetery to be expanded then the next discovery might be 50 feet to the north or south. Then we find ourselves in a delicate situation.” Wow. If nothing else, I guess, I appreciate Bell’s candor.
As for the fable of the man, the boy, and their donkey, the moral of the story is that everyone has their own opinion, and there is no way one can satisfy all. I’m struggling to apply this lesson to the situation at hand, but Gillettia Morgan apparently is not, for she responded to Bell, “Very well said.”