cemetery preservation

Lane Street Project: the New York Times on “the decay, destruction and desecration plaguing many of America’s Black cemeteries.”

Last week, The New York Times shined its powerful spotlight on three African-American cemeteries and the women fighting to save them.

As disheartening as the details of these cemeteries are — Vick is not the only graveyard ravished by a utility company — I am encouraged by the increasing attention paid to their plights and the knowledge that Lane Street Project is not alone in its struggle. Or its dreams. “I don’t want to keep trying to save the land,” said Lisa Fager, who fights for Washington, D.C.’s Mount Zion-Female Union Band Society cemeteries, “I want to save the people and their stories.”

Lane Street Project: Bravo, Elm City!

Look at Elm City, y’all — modeling progressiveness, cooperation, and public spirit!

While Wilson is throwing stones at the messenger, Elm City’s leaders have been working with a descendant group holding title to Heritage (formerly Elm City Colored) Cemetery to seek a $93,000 federal grant for restoration of Elm City’s historic African-American burial ground.

Drew C. Wilson’s story posted yesterday at the Wilson Times online:

Lane Street Project: a tale of two cities.

Let’s talk about a city that’s doing cemetery preservation right.

My mother’s mother was from Statesville in Iredell County, in North Carolina’s western Piedmont. For decades, my great aunt Louise lived at 648 South Green Street, directly across from Statesville’s oldest public African-American burial ground, now known as Green Street Cemetery. I’ve only found three marked graves of my family members there — those of my great-great-grandfather John Walker Colvert, his wife Addie Hampton Colvert, and their daughter Selma E. Colvert — but there are certainly many more. My great-great-great-grandfather Walker Colvert, born on a northern Virginia plantation around 1819 and brought as a child to North Carolina as part of an inheritance. My great-grandfather Lon W. Colvert, a bootlegger turned respectable barber. My grandmother’s half-brother John W. Colvert II and his mother, Josephine Dalton Colvert. My grandmother’s aunts Addie McNeely Smith and Elethea McNeely Weaver and her cousin Irving McNeely Weaver, who was brought home from New Jersey for burial. Maybe her grandfather Henry W. McNeely, born to a slaveowner and his enslaved housekeeper.

The double headstone of John W. and Adeline Hampton Colvert, Green Street Cemetery, Statesville.

With so few grave markers, Green Street Cemetery seems relatively empty, but I have always assumed it was full. A local undertaker told me that, at sunset at the right angle in the right season, the shallow depressions of old graves stand out vividly in the landscape. This year, Iredell County Public Library, Iredell County, the City of Statesville, and the Statesville Chapter of the NAACP have partnered to locate and count Green Street Cemetery’s unmarked graves, to memorialize them, and to erect educational signage at the graveyard.

Imagine that. Local government at the forefront of efforts to preserve, honor and expand knowledge about an old cemetery.

In April, on its Facebook page, the Iredell County Public Library posted that it was “pleased to update the community on the continued preservation efforts at the Green Street Cemetery. Omega Mapping Services conducted a ground-penetrating radar survey from Friday, March 24, to Thursday, March 30. In that time, it has been determined that there are a total of 1,816 burials in the land that was surveyed. Of that number, 1,673 are unmarked, although several of those graves have stones that are covered over and will need to be extracted. The library plans to uncover these important stones in order to obtain vital information. The GPR survey is not complete and Omega will return to finish studying the property after additional clearing of the trees and brush in the extension of the cemetery located behind the old funeral home. [City of Statesville crews did the clearing, and the City’s mayor posted about its role in the project with the hashtag #promisesmadepromiseskept.] The completion of this part of the survey should take place this month.

“In addition to this, we are very excited to invite the community to join us for the next phase of this project through a hands-on program at Green Street Cemetery. As part of the $20,000 grant awarded by NC Humanities to the library for this project, we have purchased stainless metal markers to be installed at every unmarked grave in the Green Street Cemetery in place of the orange flags. This product came to us as a recommendation from the surveyor who has used these markers in other cemeteries. The marker consists of a ten inch (10”) bolt with a three and a half inch (3.5”) disk at the top. Once installed, it will lay flush with the earth allowing maintenance to continue as usual with no disruption or damage to the markers. In time, when the ground cover grows over the markers, they will still be identifiable with a metal detector, similar to markers used by land surveyors. They are easy to install by pushing the bolt into the ground by hand or using rubber mallets. With the amount of rain we are expecting in this area in the coming days, the ground will be soft enough to install these markers. Members of the community are encouraged to participate in this event, especially the descendants of those buried at this site.

I.C.P.L. hosted meetings throughout late winter and spring to engage the public about the future of Green Street Cemetery and has involved the descendant community not only in planning, but in the execution of plans to memorialize the generations buried there.

Certainly, there are differences between Green Street Cemetery and Vick Cemetery. Green Street never lapsed into a jungle, and the City of Statesville has maintained it since 1961. Green Street’s lost grave markers have fallen to time and the elements, not city-sanctioned removal and destruction. Nonetheless, though it sits in a much more uncomfortable seat vis-a-vis its responsibility for current conditions, the City of Wilson could take a page from Statesville’s book. Viewed cynically, the City has an opportunity to gin up good press (and, maybe, goodwill) with an engaged, enlightened, transparent approach to Vick. Instead, it continues to hide its hand in service of its own agenda. For a city desperate to market itself as a progressive, welcoming, attractive location for new folks and new business, it’s a curious strategy.

It’s also business as usual.

Wilson takes justifiable great pride in Whirligig Park, a burgeoning downtown, the YMCA, the Farmers Market, and the Gillette sports complex among other exciting developments, but is acutely tone-deaf to the perceptions of East Wilson residents that the City’s new prosperity does not extend across the tracks. When boneheaded ideas like closing the Reid Street Center pool (“kids can swim at the Y”) reach the light of day, the City is caught off-guard by the vociferous backlash and immediately backpedals, stuttering and stammering. When New South Associates formally reports to the City that graves lie under its power poles, the City will once again be on its collective back foot.

Seize this opportunity, City of Wilson. Engage the descendant community openly and honestly. Find out what people want to see happen at Vick. Accept responsibility. Listen. Learn. Reflect. Then act in accordance.

For more about the history of Green Street and collaborative efforts to preserve it, see Viewpoint: Recognizing the historical significance of the Green Street Cemetery, http://www.iredellfreenews.com. For coverage of ground-penetrating radar performed there, see Every burial is a story: Survey of Green Street Cemetery uncovering history, http://www.statesville.com; Up to 2,000 unmarked graves uncovered in Statesville, http://www.qcnews.com; and ‘This is holy ground’: Radar survey preserving history at Statesville cemetery, www.spectrumlocalnews.com.

Photo by Lisa Y. Henderson, 2014.

Podcast recommendation: Sugar Land.

An impassioned, but disrespected, community advocate; an abandoned cemetery filled with unmarked graves of African-Americans; historic racism; frustratingly opaque government response.

There’s nothing new under the sun.

“In 2018, construction crews building a new school in Sugar Land, Texas, discovered a long-forgotten cemetery containing 95 graves. Two years ago, we set out to tell the story of these 95 people – who were they? What happened to them? In the process, we learned that theirs is a story about power – who gets it and how they wield it.”

Sound familiar?

Listen to and follow Sugar Land on NPR or wherever you get your podcasts.

Saving spaces (and myself.)

I repped hard for Wide-Awake yesterday at Save Your Spaces Festival, talking about Lane Street Project and the challenges and rewards of African-American cemetery preservation, as well as learning about amazing local projects here in Atlanta from public historians, artists, preservationists, and others of my new “tribe.” 

Shouts out to moderator Dr. Shari L. Williams, who spearheads Macon County, Alabama’s The Ridge Archaeological Project, and co-panelist Debra Taylor Gonzalez of Friends of Geer Cemetery, which offers a model for how Lane Street Project might grow and what we might achieve.

Deep appreciation to the visionary Nedra Deadwyler, founder of Civil Bikes and Save Your Spaces, for pulling me into this conversation with gentle prods and encouragement over the past year or so. My acute awareness that I am neither a public historian nor preservationist by training has had me hiding my light, but this experience reassured me of the value I bring to the work. I’ll move forward with a steadier voice and better tools to help save the historic spaces that mean most to me.

Save Your Spaces.

I’m honored to join these amazing women at Save Your Spaces Cultural Heritage and Historic Preservation Festival to talk about successes and challenges in the critical work of preserving African-American cemeteries.

If you’re intrigued by local history, have stories to tell or histories to preserve, are curious and want to learn more about cultural heritage and create ways to preserve it, please join us March 4 at Create ATL, 900 Murphy Avenue SW, Atlanta.

Lane Street Project: The work is everywhere and never ends.

“Here is how we lose these rural Black cemeteries:

1. We ignore the fact that it was illegal for enslaved people to read and write, so they weren’t going to mark their graves with people’s names. Instead, we use a lack of name-marked graves as evidence the site isn’t important.

2. We don’t recognize that enslaved and newly emancipated people had different ways of marking their graves than what was the fashion of rich white people, and instead, we call the plants and trees that were used to decorate graves ‘overgrowth.’

3. We make it impossible for people to access the cemetery, and we call it abandoned.

4. We develop over it.

Two writers recently joined the chorus of voices bearing witness to the disrespect paid historic African-American cemeteries across the eastern and southern United States.

The passage above, from Betsy Phillips’ “The Steady Erasure of Black Cemeteries,” published at nashvillescene.com on 12 December 2022, anchors a gut-wrenching piece about African-American cemeteries in the Nashville, Tennessee, area. She writes, “People and their descendants had their lives stolen from them by slavery, and now they’ve got their deaths stolen by development.”

The second piece, Seth Freed Wessler’s “Developers Found Graves in the Virginia Woods. Authorities Then Helped Erase the Historic Black Cemetery,” published 16 December 2022 by ProPublica, recounts in painful detail the connivance of local government, private archaeology firms, and Microsoft Corporation to clear out a African-American family cemetery standing in the way of a datacenter expansion.