Institutions

Lane Street Project: Radar could locate lost graves.

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.

Save Vick Elementary.

Though Wilson County’s population is larger than ever, its elementary schools operate at only 60% capacity. Consultants hired by the Wilson County Board of Education have proposed school closures and consolidations to address long-range system needs. One proposal includes the closure of Samuel H. Vick Elementary.

The original Vick Elementary opened in 1936 at 801 East Reid Street, but for several decades has occupied buildings at the former site of Charles H. Darden High School.

At a recent school board meetings, Vick Elementary’s supporters were especially vocal. As reported in the Times on December 20: “I see the Vick Elementary community as a true community where neighbors look out for each other, and the presence of the school has so much to do with that,” [Seeds of Hope Wilson community garden coordinator Julia Newton] said. “Rather than closing this school, it should be celebrated and supported. Its special place in Wilson history should be common knowledge. If we are indeed ‘One Wilson,’ let’s come together to keep Vick Elementary alive and thriving.”

Priscilla Morello of Winstead United Methodist Church’s Hand in Hand Partnership, which has provided volunteer support to Vick for two decades, said, “If you close Vick Elementary School, then a substantial, daily lifeline to the east Wilson community will be cut, and the families and students and the community will run the risk of falling into deeper community neglect. … Closing Vick Elementary will deprive an already marginalized community of the daily light and sense of purpose brought by this school to this neighborhood.”

Photographs by Lisa Y. Henderson, December 2021.

An appeal for aid.

Wilson Daily Times, 3 December 1930.

After struggling financially for many years, in 1930 the African-American hospital on East Green Street reopened as non-profit Mercy Hospital, the name by which it is best known, with support from the Duke Foundation and the Julius Rosenwald Foundation. Though Mercy did not admit white patients, it had an integrated Board of Trustees. Its president and vice-president were white, but William Hines, secretary/treasurer, retained his duties as chief hospital administrator.

Lane Street Project: an anniversary.

Look what popped up in my Facebook Memories today:

I’ll confess it, y’all. My expectations were pretty low. I’d issued hopeful calls like this before and had ended up poking around by myself for a frigid hour or two. Maybe, though, something about that first pandemic year we’d just been through made this appeal just hit different.

A dozen people showed up. (Even from out of town.) And a newspaper reporter. And before you knew it, Sam Vick‘s headstone emerged from the soil like a benediction, and Lane Street Project moved from wishful thinking to purposeful action.

A year later, and Vick Cemetery is on its way to re-recognition as a public cemetery. Odd Fellows has backslid a bit toward wilderness, but you can actually get in it without a machete. Rountree — well, we’ll get there. 

Most importantly, a beautiful, organic, multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-generational coalition of Wilsonians and friends came together, bringing tools and time and energy to the reclamation of these sacred spaces. 

I’ve thanked you for this work, and I’ll thank you often and forever.

And in advance.

Lane Street Project Season 2 kicks off in January 2022 during Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. If you or your church or your civic organization or your children or your co-workers or your cousins are looking for a way to be of service, a way to make a difference, please join us. Many hands make light work.

Bazaar to benefit the hospital.

Wilson Daily Times, 7 December 1916.

A few years after it opened, friends of the Wilson Colored Hospital (later known as Mercy) held a pop-up shop of sorts in the Odd Fellows Hall on East Nash Street to raise money for indigent tuberculosis patients. On offer, clothing, but mostly undoubtedly delicious food — barbecue, chicken salad, oysters, sausages, sandwiches, sweets and ice cream.

50 ways you can help Lane Street Project.

The headstones of Della Hines Barnes and Dave Barnes, Odd Fellows Cemetery, September 2021.

  1. Join a clean-up.
  2. Bring a friend.
  3. Amplify our message.
  4. Follow Lane Street Project on Instagram or Facebook.
  5. Drop off coffee or hot chocolate or water for volunteers working at a clean-up.
  6. Bring doughnuts or other snacks to a clean-up.
  7. Donate money for supplies, tools, equipment, and professional services.
  8. Donate supplies, tools, equipment, and professional services.
  9. Bring a group of your church members to a clean-up.
  10. Visit and pay your respects.
  11. Leave flowers.
  12. Fill a bag with trash or debris.
  13. Cut 25 wisteria vines.
  14. Photograph a headstone and record its information.
  15. Record a headstone’s GPS location.
  16. Clear a section of fence.
  17. Tag us: #lanestreetproject
  18. Bring your fraternity or sorority members to a clean-up.
  19. Interview an elder about their memories of the cemeteries.
  20. Pay for a roll-off bin for a clean-up day.
  21. Bring your classmates to a clean-up.
  22. Wear a mask.
  23. Bring your alumni group to a clean-up.
  24. “Adopt” a grave or family plot, and keep it clean and neat.
  25. Bring your co-workers to a clean-up.
  26. Pour libations.
  27. Find out if you have people buried here.
  28. Speak truth to power.
  29. Bring your motorcycle club to a clean-up.
  30. Pray for the thousands buried in Odd Fellows, Vick, and Rountree Cemeteries.
  31. Honor your ancestors.
  32. Bring your fellow veterans to a clean-up. (There are many buried here.)
  33. Ask your councilperson to support efforts to reclaim Odd Fellows Cemetery.
  34. Buy Lane Street Project merchandise. The proceeds will benefit clean-up work.
  35. Bring your fellow Masons or Eastern Stars to a clean-up.
  36. Help us install fence art.
  37. Ask your councilperson to support efforts to redress harm done to Vick Cemetery.
  38. Ask us what we need.
  39. Bring your Scout troop or other youth group to a clean-up.
  40. Read about the histories of Wilson’s African-American cemeteries here on Black Wide-Awake.
  41. Observe safety rules when working a clean-up.
  42. Watch your step.
  43. STOP DUMPING.
  44. Clean headstones with water and a soft-bristled brush ONLY. No detergent. No soap.
  45. Ride by every once in a while and let us know if anything needs to be taken care of.
  46. Bring your social club to a clean-up.
  47. Teach your children and students about local African-American history.
  48. Be careful not to lean on headstones. Some are unstable, and if they fall you will be hurt.
  49. Share your thoughts about the futures of the cemeteries.
  50. Come again.

Wilson Normal and Industrial Institute, est. 1918.

Founded after Black parents boycotted the public Colored Graded School to protest mistreatment of Black teachers, Wilson Normal and Industrial Institute, (also called the Independent School) operated for about ten years.

The school had neither a crest nor a motto, but, in honor of its 103rd anniversary this month, I imagined both.

QUIA NOS STARE — Because we stand.

For more about Wilson Normal & Industrial Institute, see:

new-school-open

a-big-occasion-in-the-history-of-the-race-in-this-city

the-program

photos-of-the-colored-graded-and-independent-schools

the-industrial-or-independent-school-commemorated

Negroes to receive lifetime pension for amputated feet.

When I stumbled upon this article, I was not sure if the terrible incident it described involved African-Americans from Wilson County. (It turns out they were not.) I did know, however, that state legislator Troy T. Barnes of Wilson co-sponsored a bill to award the victims pensions, and I knew I wanted to know more.

Wilson Daily Times, 29 March 1935.

A review of the widespread state news coverage reveals:

  • In December 1934, Woodrow Wilson Shropshire, 19, was sentenced to 120 days on a chain gang for drunkenness and drunk driving. In January 1935, Robert Barnes, also 19, was sentenced to a year “on the road” for possession of a stolen camera. Both were sent to a Mecklenburg County labor camp.
  • In January 1935, Shropshire and Barnes were placed in solitary confinement for alleged insubordination and cursing at a guard. The men were chained in a standing position against a wall for eight hours a day for four days. During the cold nights, they slept in an unheated room with little covering. The camp doctor failed to check on them as required by law. Both suffered severe damage to their feet that led to gangrene.
  • In early March, Wilson and Barnes were taken to Central State Prison in Raleigh where their feet were amputated. The following week, the state legislature opened an investigation into the matter. 
  • Per testimony, the men originally been held at Mecklenburg County camp #411. When they attempted to warm themselves at a fire without permission during frigid January temperatures, a guard warned them away and Shropshire cursed him. Because camp #411 had no solitary confinement, they were moved to camp #413. Barnes, Shropshire, and a former prisoner named John Reid testified that a prison guard beat Barnes unconscious for spitting on the floor. The men were fed half a biscuit twice a day and a small amount of water. Prison officials claimed the men’s feet had been damaged by erysipelas, a strep bacterial infection. And/or their gangrene had been caused by the men stuffing rags too tightly between their skin and shackles. (“It is astonishing,” [testified prison physician] Coleman, “how some prisoners will mutilate themselves to escape work.”]
  • The investigation turned up an additional atrocity — the secret burials of Black convicts in a Watauga County cornfield during construction of the Boone Trail state highway in 1930. (The men had been reported as escapees.) Legislators had questions about the laws concerning prisoners in state camp, the limits (or lack thereof) on the kind of punishment guards could mete out, and the practice of transferring prisoners to camps with “little dark houses” used for solitary confinement. Three state representatives, including Barnes of Wilson, sponsored a bill providing a lifetime pension for Shropshire and Barnes.
  • In early April, the camp superintendent, camp physician, and three guards were arrested and charged with crimes including neglect, torture, maiming, and assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill. Shropshire was taken by ambulance from Raleigh to testify before a Mecklenburg County grand jury; Barnes was still too weak from his injuries.
  • The committee’s recommendation, issued in late April, was conservative. North Carolina penal camps could continue using whips and “dark cells” to punish prisoners. On the bright side, Shropshire and Barnes were to receive prosthetic feet and jobs in the highway or prison departments. 
  • By mid-May, the State had spent $500 for four sets of artificial limbs for the two men, but neither was strong enough to use them.
  • The trial got underway in mid-July. Surprise — all defendants were acquitted!
  • Shropshire made good progress adjusting to his prosthetics. He declined a job in Raleigh, preferring to return to Mecklenburg to be near family, and the State promised to find him a job there. Barnes continued to struggle. In 1940, when he registered for the World War II draft, he was described as unemployed. His card noted “both feet amputated below knees.”