As noted here, there is no end to the number of desecrated African-American cemeteries across this country. Ten or so years ago, I posted to my Tumblr account (scuffalong.tumblr.com, if you’re interested) a photo I took in a bizarre “cemetery” not far from where I live in Atlanta, Georgia.
Yesterday, I stumbled on a recent YouTube short that explores Gilbert Memorial a little further. There are echoes of Vick Cemetery in what happened to Gilbert — the themes and trajectories of all these sacred spaces are depressingly familiar.
My thanks to Doug Loggins for sharing Gilbert’s story.
It is impossible to list every African-American cemetery in the United States. Or even every abandoned African-American cemetery. Here, however, is the start of a running list of abandoned or abused African-American cemeteries whose particular circumstances have garnered media (or my) attention, and the organizations attempting to reclaim them. It takes its inspiration from the Adams-McEachin African American Burial Grounds Network Act, which proposes a voluntary national database of historic African-American burial grounds. This legislation would also establish a National Park Service program, in coordination with state, local, private, and non-profit groups, to educate the public and provide technical assistance for community members and public and private organizations to research, survey, identify, record, and preserve burial sites and cemeteries within the Network.
Rountree, Odd Fellows and Vick Cemeteries, Lane Street Project, Wilson
Thirty-one years ago this month, the City of Wilson acknowledged what a quick deed search could have told anyone — it owns Vick cemetery.
Wilson Daily Times, 13 February 1990.
The Cemetery Commission’s reaction, as reported here, was a long list of negatives focused on the expense of restoration and upkeep of Vick cemetery, with no comment recorded about duties owed (and neglected for decades) to the dead.
(N.B.: The Cemetery Commission is not involved in the present upkeep of Vick Cemetery or the narrow strip at the front of Odd Fellows Cemetery. They are mowed, sprayed, etc., by a contractor per an agreement with the City.)
Richmond, Virginia’s Friends of East End Cemetery is out here doing the Lord’s work. Their journey is both inspiration and cautionary tale for the Lane Street Project.
The City of Wilson denied Vick Cemetery, then destroyed it. Rountree and Odd Fellows cemeteries have been neglected by their respective owners for more than half a century. The evidence of well-meaning, but illy executed, attempts to bring order to abandonment are strewn across the forest floor of those burial grounds — stacks of toppled grave markers, footstones bereft of headstones, piles of worn and broken marble.
To paraphrase a common folk-truth, these cemeteries can do bad all by themselves. The aim of Lane Street Project is to reclaim and restore, not to do further damage. Thus, until money and expertise are secured, clean up will be limited to loppers and pruners and trash bags. I’m shooting for a December or January date. Please stay tuned.
Dr. Judy Rashid recently left flowers in memory of her infant sister, who was buried in Rountree or Vick Cemetery in 1949.
The eastern end of Lane Street, in southeast Wilson, is home to three historic African-American cemeteries: Rountree (established about 1906), Odd Fellows (established circa 1900), and Vick (established 1913).
Rountree and Odd Fellows are privately owned. Vick is owned by the City of Wilson.
Rountree is completely overgrown with mature trees and heavy underbrush.
Odd Fellows is also overgrown, except for a narrow strip along the road that the city maintains.
In 1996, the city clear-cut Vick cemetery, removed its remaining headstones, graded the entire parcel, and erected a single marker in memory of the dead.
A series of aerial photographs of the cemeteries over time shows in astonishing detail the forgotten features of these cemeteries and the terrible march of neglect across all three. Each photograph has been overlaid with the present-day boundaries of tax parcels. The rectangle at left is Vick, then Odd Fellows and Rountree.
This blurry photograph shows the interconnectedness of the three cemeteries, with narrow dirt paths winding across property lines and no visible boundary markers. The light areas are too large to be individual stones and more likely are family plots of varying sizes. The back edge of Rountree and Odd Fellows cemeteries — marshy land along Sandy Creek — was wooded.
Though hundreds were buried between 1937 and 1948, Vick is still almost completely open field, with some trees at its western and southern edges and numerous plots visible. A large cleared trapezoid straddles the Vick and Odd Fellows boundaries — what is this?
Six years later, the change is shocking. Vick has clearly fallen into disuse, its paths allowed to fill with weeds. Rountree and Odd Fellows, too, are overgrown, but their major paths remain clear. The mystery trapezoid, however, is gone.
Another ten years and all three cemeteries are well on their way to complete abandonment. Only one path is clear, a new passage cut to join an old one in Odd Fellows.
A contemporary aerial view of the three cemeteries shows the empty expanse of Vick; its lone city-sponsored monument; the paved path leading from the monument to a small parking lot located at the boundary of Vick and Odd Fellows; the cleared bit of Odd Fellows; and the jungle that is Rountree. There is no trace of the trapezoid.
I am indebted to Will Corbett, GIS Coordinator, Wilson County Technology Services Department, for responding to my inquiry re the availability of Wilson County maps, answering a million questions, and providing these remarkable images.
During this pandemic, my work for the recovery of East Wilson’s black cemeteries is a banked fire, but it still burns. Please watch this timely mini-documentary for a deeper understanding of what is at stake on Lane Street and why I care.
It was chilly Saturday morning, too, but not as bitingly cold as at my last visit. This time, I focused on the end of Odd Fellows cemetery closest to its boundary with Vick.
First depressing thing I notice — some jackass has been spinning donuts in Vick cemetery.
Once I clawed my way into Odd Fellows, though I was achingly aware that the depressions I was stumbling in were collapsed gravesites, I didn’t see much beyond broken stones scattered here and there across the forest floor.
Have I mentioned the vines? The vines are insane.
The low-lying back of the property, which has standing water, probably year-round.
After poking around in piles of broken bottles and rusted-out enamelware, I finally spotted a cluster of grave markers about thirty feet distant.
This is the only military headstone I’ve seen in Rountree or Odd Fellows, and may be the only military marker I’ve seen anywhere with “after-market” enhancement.
James F. Scott North Carolina PVT 365 INF 92 DIV March 28, 1939 Born March 6, 1887 Who is now with the Lord
In the 1910 census of Weldon township, Halifax County, North Carolina: farmer John Scott, 53; wife Mary J., 46; and children James F., 22, Annie B., 16, Salomie A., 15, John A., 13, Sylvester, 11, Eliga, 9, Mary E., 7, David, 5, Sarah J., 3, and Inthe, 1.
James Franklin Scott registered for the World War I draft in 1917. Per his registration card, he was born 6 March 1887 in Wayne County, N.C.; lived on “Robinson” Street, Wilson; worked as a porter for Carroll Grocery Company; and was single.
In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Wainwright Street, farm operator John Scott, 60; wife Mary, 51; and children James, 30, wholesale company helper; Elijah, 19, David, 14, Sarah, 11, and Ianthe, 13.
Bessie Wife of John McGowan Born 1888 Jan. 7 1925 Gone But Not Forgotten
In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: John McGowan, 40, brickmason; wife Bessie, 35; and Beatriss, 13.
Jesse Parker Dec. 1, 1890 Apr. 12, 1937 light from our household is gone
And then there was this stack, roped with vines:
The broken granite marker supports two intact concrete headstones, two marble footstones, and a few other chunks of rock.
In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Edd Hunter, 27, odd jobs laborer.
Ed Hunter, 27, married Minnie Woodard, 23, daughter of Ruffin and Lucy Woodard, on 28 December 1910 at Lucy Woodard’s in Wilson. Baptist minister Fred M. Davis performed the ceremony in the presence of James H. Knight, J.L.Barnes Jr., and Joe Baker.
Ed Hunter, 30, married Lossie Ruffin, 27, on 18 March 1914. Fred M. Davis performed the ceremony at William Coppedge’s in Wilson in the presence of William Coppedge, Timcy Jones, and Bessie McGowan.
In 1918, Ed Hunter registered for the World War I draft in Wilson. Per his registration card, he was born 30 August 1883; lived on Carroll Street, Wilson; worked at Barnes-Harrell bottling plant; and his nearest relative was Lossie Hunter.
In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Washington Street, laborer Edd Hunter, 37; wife Lossie, 33; children Maeoma, 3, and Eliza, 1; and step-children Inise, 13, and Addie L. Ruffin, 11.
Rufus Son of James & Amelia Artis Born July 16, 1900 Died Apr. 24, 1916
Blount Artis died 24 April 1916 in Boon Hill township, Johnston County. Per his death certificate, he was about 16 years old; was born in Wilson County to Jim Artis and Amelia Artis; was single; and worked as a clerk in a drugstore. Charles Gay was informant. [Though the first name is different, this appears to be the same boy as Rufus Artis.]
Tempsy Wife of Rufus Speight Died July 16, 1917 Aged 75 Yrs. Gone to a Better Home, Where Grief Cannot Come.
In the 1870 census of Upper Fishing Creek township, Edgecombe County: farm laborer Rufus Speight, 23; wife Tempsy, 25; and children Isabella, 8, Rufus, 3, and Celey, 1.
In the 1880 census of Upper Fishing Creek township, Edgecombe County: farm laborer Rufus Speight, 45; wife Tempsy, 38; and children Isabella, 19, Rufus, 12, Wesley, 8, and Celey A., 10, and Mattie, 4.
Back toward the cleared section of the cemetery near the road, two broken concrete markers lay atop the marble base of a missing monument that must have been quite large.
Only the footstone of Mark H. Cotton, engraved with the Odd Fellows’ triple links symbol, is standing.
Mark Cotton, 23, married Jane Freeman, 22, on 27 February 1878 in Wilson, Minister Joseph Green performed the ceremony in the presence of I.S. Westbrook, S.W. Westbrook, and Charles Smith.
In the 1880 census of Wilson, Wilson County: laborer Dempsey Parker, 60; wife Phareby, 50; and children Mark, 27, works in nursery, Sanders, 23, laborer; Mary, 22, cook; and Lemuel, 40, laborer.
Mark H. Cotton, 45, son of Dempsy and Fereby Cotton, married Mahalia Battle, 22, daughter of Turner and Effie Battle, on 26 June 1895 at the residence of Mahalia Battle in Wilson. Henry C. Rountree applied for the license, and Missionary Baptist minister Fred M. Davis performed the ceremony in the presence of Thomas J. Day and J.T. Deans of Wilson and J.T. Tomlinson of Black Creek.
In the 1900 census of Wilson, Wilson County: graded school janitor Mark Cotton, 45; wife Mahaley, 27; daughter Mary E., 2, and adopted daughter Rosa L., 11.
In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Gold Street, school janitor Mark Cotton, 52.
Mark Cotton 67, son of Dempsey and Farebee Cotton, married Minnie Brooks, 38, daughter of Tobe Farmer, on 11 December 1922 in Wilson. A.M.E. Zion minister B.P. Coward performed the ceremony in the presence of Edward Smith, Sallie Smith, and Rosa Arrington.
Mark Henry Cotton died 19 November 1934 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was 95 years old; was born in Edgecombe County to Dempsey Cotton and Fariby Mercer; was married to Minnie Cotton; worked as a laborer; and was buried in Wilson.
Wilson Daily Times, 20 November 1934.
I stepped from the wood line into the cleared section of Odd Fellows cemetery. At its line with Rountree cemetery, remnants of a stone border nestle in moss, then the ground dips into a vine-choked ditch. Below, the city has recently clear-cut the western side of the street, a section of which was once part of Rountree cemetery. A short stretch of stone or concrete border remains.
Naturalized daffodils hint at the strip’s past as a graveyard.
This ambiguous concrete rectangle is the sole evidence I saw of a grave marker.