This is going to ramble. It is not my best work. But I don’t have time to polish it before I need to post it. So bear with me, please, and read.
A sweetgum sapling emerges from the base of Delzela Rountree’s headstone.
It’s not oversight. It’s deliberate. After 25 years, the city of Wilson has stopped mowing the front section of Odd Fellows Cemetery. The vague reason proffered: the Cemetery Commission only covers Rest Haven and Maplewood Cemeteries, and Odd Fellows is privately owned.
Let’s talk about the Cemetery Commission part for a minute.
First, a “cemetery,” as defined in Wilson’s Code of Ordinances, Chapter 9 — Cemeteries:
(Code 1969, § 8-1) [emphasis added]
The Wilson Cemetery Commission was established per North Carolina General Statutes, specifically Chapter 160A — Cities and Towns, which states in pertinent part:
§ 160A-349.3. Property vested.
Upon the creation of such board the title to all property held by the town or city and used for cemetery purposes shall pass to and vest in said board, subject to the same limitations, conditions and restrictions as it was held by the town or city; provided, that the governing body of the town or city may at any time by resolution direct that title to such property shall pass to and vest in the town or city itself, and in such event it shall be the duty of the board and its officers to execute all necessary documents to effect such transfer and vesting. (Pub. Loc. 1923, c. 583, s. 3; 1979, 2nd Sess., c. 1247, s. 30.)
§ 160A-349.4. Control and management; superintendent and assistants; enumeration of powers.
The said board shall have the exclusive control and management of such cemetery; shall have the power to employ a superintendent and such assistants as may be needed, and may do any and all things pertaining to the control, maintenance, management and upkeep of the cemetery which the governing body of the town or city could have done, or which by law the governing body of the town or city shall hereafter be authorized to do. (Pub. Loc. 1923, c. 583, s. 4.)
The City of Wilson established Vick Cemetery in 1913. It was a cemetery owned and operated by the City. State statute requirements notwithstanding, the Cemetery Commission has never taken title to Vick Cemetery. To this day, the Commission neither controls, maintains, manages, nor keeps up Vick Cemetery. The Commission has failed its obligation even to publicly-owned Vick Cemetery. And to the point, the Commission is irrelevant to the City’s withdrawal of Public Works support from Odd Fellows.
(As a sidenote, the statute also states:
§ 160A-349.8. Commissioners to obtain maps, plats and deeds; list of lots sold and owners; surveys and plats to be made; additional lots, streets, walks and parkways; price of lots; regulation of sale of lots.
The board of trustees shall obtain from the governing body all maps, plats, deeds and other evidences relating to the lands, lots and property of the cemetery; they shall also obtain from the governing body of the town or city, as nearly as possible, an accurate list of the lots theretofore sold, together with the names of the owners thereof. The said board of trustees shall from time to time cause surveys to be made, maps and plats prepared, laying out additional lots, streets, paths, walks and parkways; shall fix a price at which such lots shall be sold, which price may from time to time, in the discretion of the board, be changed; shall adopt rules and regulations as to the sale of said lots and deliver to the purchaser or purchasers deed or evidences of title thereto. (Pub. Loc. 1923, c. 583, s. 8.)
Per the City’s responses to my Public Records Act requests, the Cemetery Commission has NO records of Vick Cemetery [or its publicly-owned predecessor Oakdale.] No maps, no plats, no deeds, no lists of lots or owners. The Cemetery Commission does not even have records of the graves disinterred from Oakdale/Oaklawn Cemetery in 1941 and reburied in Rest Haven Cemetery, the current “Black” cemetery. Nor does the Commission have early records of Rest Haven, which the City established in the early 1930s to replace Vick.
But I digress.)
Again: the City of Wilson owns Vick Cemetery. It established the cemetery in 1913 as a resting place for African-Americans, who were forbidden to purchase lots in Maplewood Cemetery. The City collected fees from lot sales and grave openings for 45 years, but lifted not a hand to maintain the cemetery’s eight acres. In the 1950s, the City condemned Vick and closed it, shifting burials to another segregated public cemetery, Rest Haven. From the 1950s to the mid-1990s, Vick Cemetery, along with adjacent Odd Fellows and Rountree Cemeteries, devolved to woodland and dumping ground.
In 1990, following decades of denial, the City admitted that it owns Vick cemetery. After several years of haggling and foot-dragging, the City settled on a plan that — astoundingly — resulted in the clear-cutting of Vick Cemetery, the removal of its headstones, and the erection of a single memorial in 1996. The City also created a small parking lot at the border of Vick and Odd Fellows Cemeteries and installed two large granite blocks inscribed “Rountree-Vick Cemetery.” Until this year, the City’s Public Works Department regularly cut the grass in the front section of Odd Fellows (which it calls Rountree) when it mowed Vick. (Rountree Cemetery is actually another private cemetery on the other side of Odd Fellows.)
I repeat: the Cemetery Commission has never cared for Vick Cemetery. Rather, the City of Wilson, however, spent decades ignoring (and, alternately, abusing) its property. While the City was erecting a massive blond-brick Mission Style entrance and carefully manicuring the shady paths of Maplewood’s park-like landscape, the families of Vick’s dead were pleading for help navigating the muddy roads that led to that graveyard. In the 1980s and early ’90s, when citizens demanded that the City clear Vick of decades of trash, some councilmen blamed descendant families for letting the cemetery — the city’s own property — fall into disrepair. In the end, the City pulled up the Vick’s remaining headstones and, within the past 20 years, destroyed them.
Vick Cemetery today. More than 1500 graves lie under this field. Every Black Wilsonian whose family has been here more than 50 years has people under this grass.
A closer look at the memorial site, which is shrouded by overgrown hollies and dead cherry trees and is in itself a testament to City neglect.
Now to the “Odd Fellows is privately owned” piece. In 1900, African-Americans were barred from Maplewood, the lovely public cemetery their taxes supported. The “colored” city cemetery was crowded and flood-prone and ill-maintained. Seeking better options, Hannibal Lodge #1552, Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, established its own burial ground. The cemetery is the resting place of Samuel H. Vick and his family and two to three generations of the African-American men and women who built East Wilson and its institutions during the darkest days of Jim Crow.
Within 15 years, the City purchased eight acres adjacent to Odd Fellows to establish a new Black cemetery. However, both it and Odd Fellows Cemetery fell from use around 1950 and by the 1960s were trash heaps. The Odd Fellows Lodge went defunct in the 1980s, leaving its Cemetery with no real owner.
In January 2021, a multi-ethnic, multi-generational, multi-religious group of volunteers came together to reclaim the vine-strangled rear of Odd Fellows Cemetery. Twice a month for the next four months, dozens donated time and muscle to restore honor and dignity to Odd Fellows’ forgotten dead. In the wake of Lane Street Project’s powerful display of collective purpose, the City abruptly halted its 25-year practice of mowing the strip of graveyard nearest the road.
THIS ISN’T ABOUT OWNERSHIP. IT’S ABOUT EQUITY.
Having disinvested in East Wilson for so long, having forsaken its institutions, having desecrated its public burial grounds, having watered the west side while leaving the east to wither on the vine, will the City continue to withhold even this minor gesture of acknowledgement of and respect for Black bodies?
Photos by Lisa Y. Henderson, September 2021.