Lane Street Project: a visit to Rocky Mount’s Unity Cemetery.

My first look at Rocky Mount’s Unity Cemetery was jaw-dropping. This Edgecombe County burial ground, founded in 1901, is more than twice the size of Vick Cemetery (and about half the size of Rest Haven.) Large swathes of its territory have been cleared of undergrowth; the remaining pines and a few hardwoods stretch as far as can be seen. Most of the trees have diameters no wider than a dinner plate, and I’d guess are no more than 30 to 40 years old. 

Most of the graves are currently unmarked, but perhaps several hundred gravestones stand in place. Elias Cooper’s, above, is one of the oldest; he died in 1907. The headstones are generally marble or granite; I saw very few of rough concrete “homemade” variety. As seen below, Rocky Mount families knew of Wilson’s Clarence B. Best, and I saw a few examples of his work.

I also noticed this fieldstone marker.

I entered Section A of the cemetery from the dead end of East Highland Avenue. The ground there and in Section B was fairly level, but as I pushed into Sections D and E, I was startled to find deep corrugations across the woodland floor — hundreds of graves that have subsided a foot or more. 

The dips in the shadows of tree trunks in the photos below reveal sunken graves.

I imagine Vick, Odd Fellows and Rountree Cemeteries might have looked something like this at stages of their existence, and I’m saddened by what we’ve lost.

Not all of Unity’s ground surface is clear, and in Section B I noticed wisteria, the scourge of Odd Fellows. You can see it curling to the left of this elaborate headstone, which was erected by a church congregation in honor of their pastor, Rev. John Henry Martin.)

Abel Powell, born enslaved, lived nearly a century in Rocky Mount.

The remains of a ornamental iron fence that once surrounded a family plot lean against a tree in Unity.

A prayer in memory of Unity Cemetery’s dead and for the wisdom and perseverance of those who work to protect them.

Photos by Lisa Y. Henderson, October 2023.

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