Spiky clumps of yucca dot Odd Fellows cemetery as further reminders that this patch of woods was once a curated (if not manicured) space. Though widely found in cemeteries across the country, in African-American tradition specifically, yucca binds restless spirits to their graves. Easily transplanted and nearly ever-lasting, yucca was sometimes planted near the head of a grave in lieu of an expensive stone marker.
Odd Fellows’ daffodils, which typically bloom around February, were also planted by mourning families, and it’s likely that the wisteria that has taken over the site was introduced as a grave planting.
This nearly 90 year-old article could not be more current.
Wilson Daily Times, 29 March 1932.
“A Subscriber,” undoubtedly African-American and thus needing to display circumspection, wrote to the paper to report improved conditions at “the cemetery used by the colored citizens of Wilson.” The reference was almost certainly to the large public cemetery now known as Vick.
The writer gently pointed out that recent work had given the cemetery “a more pleasing aspect,” but “while this work has added much to the looks of the cemetery, it will not be left to those who have lots there to take a wider interest and thus keep the place up to a standard of beauty and cleanliness. With the manifestation of such interest the cemetery will show the care the resting place of the dead should have.”
In other words, the upkeep of a public cemetery was not the sole (or even primary) responsibility of the families of the dead. This appeal to city officials fell on deaf ears. Within a few years, Wilson opened Rest Haven, a second public Black-only cemetery, and Vick was gradually subsumed into the woods.
In August 1920, James Dempsey Bullock penned a letter to the newspaper urging the city to establish burial plots for World War I soldiers who had died at war in France and whose remains were just then being repatriated. “… [S]ome one should see to it that a beautiful plat in Maplewood cemetery should be set aside for the interment of those whose parents wish them buried there and one in Oakwood for the colored.”
Oakwood, also known as Oakdale and Oaklawn, was Wilson’s first (or maybe second) public cemetery for African-Americans. If the city established a plat for returning soldiers, it is lost. Oakwood had already fallen out of favor as a burial ground by 1920, as families opted for private cemeteries like Rountree, Odd Fellows, or Masonic, or for the city’s newer public cemetery, now known as Vick. Oakwood was essentially abandoned just a few years later, though the city did not move its graves until 1941.
Six African-American Wilson County men — Henry T. Ellis, Benjamin Horne, Luther Harris, Pharaoh Coleman, Frank Barnes, and Vert Vick — were recorded as having died or been killed in service during World War I. It is not clear to which soldier’s body Bullock was referring as expected to arrive in New York.
Since the late 1990’s, the City of Wilson’s Public Works Department has mowed and sprayed the front section of Odd Fellows Cemetery, known to the City as “Rountree-Vick,” when it maintains Vick Cemetery. In December 2020, Lane Street Project began to clear the back three-quarters of this long-abandoned historic African-American burial ground. Volunteers of every age, color, and creed gathered twice monthly through the spring to hack vines and haul trash from this sacred space.
When I visited Odd Fellows in June 2021, I was surprised to find the grass uncut and the ditch sprouting hundreds of sweetgum saplings. On June 23, I forwarded the first two photos below to a city official, requesting that the City perform its regular maintenance. He said he’d see to it.
On July 23, when a LSP member advised me that the grass remained uncut, I repeated my request to the official. No response.
Today, to my shock, I got a glimpse of three-foot weeds sprouting near the Foster family’s headstones. (Thanks, MG, for the video from which I grabbed this still.) Wisteria once again threatens to engulf Nettie Foster‘s marker, but that’s a perennial problem. On the other hand, I have not seen weeds like this in Odd Fellows in more than 20 years.
Odd Fellows Cemetery, 7 August 2021.
Now that volunteers have rallied to save a cemetery allowed to disappear into the woods over the decades, has the City completely washed its hands of its care?
I need your help.
Please call or email the mayor and your councilperson to request that the City immediately resume regular mowing and maintenance of this section of “Rountree-Vick” cemetery. (Their contact information is here.) And please ride by the cemetery regularly to check on its condition. The job facing Lane Street Project’s volunteers is daunting enough without the City backsliding from its duties and responsibilities. Help hold it accountable.
My maternal grandmother was from Iredell County, on the western edge of North Carolina’s Piedmont. Her grandfather John Walker Colvert’s sister, Elvira Colvert Morgan, last appears in records in 1880, when she and her husband shared a household with Squire Gray, a 20 year-old who likely was her close relative. By 1900, Squire Gray, his wife Rachel, and their daughters had moved 100 miles west and were living in the Kenilworth neighborhood of South Asheville. Squire Gray died 21 June 1921. His death certificate noted that he was 61 years old, was married to Rachel Gray, and worked as a common laborer. He had been born in Rowan County to Orange Gray and Rachel Colbert, and was buried in South Asheville Cemetery.
I visited Asheville this past weekend to celebrate my birthday. As we headed home yesterday morning, I pointed the car first at South Asheville Cemetery. Though relatively large, the cemetery is not easy to find. Its address is that of 1920s’ era Saint John “A” Baptist church, now inactive and tucked deep in the middle of a neighborhood that is clearly well-to-do and no longer predominantly African-American. Skirt the gates to the church’s little parking lot, however, and South Asheville Cemetery opens up before you.
It is billed as the oldest and largest public African-American cemetery in North Carolina, and began in the 1840s as a cemetery for the enslaved laborers of the family of William Wallace McDowell. It was active until the 1940s and fell into disrepair thereafter. In the 1980s, church members began working to restore the cemetery and bring it back to the public’s attention. South Asheville Cemetery Association’s website details the cemetery’s history, links to an enviable set of maps of the locations of the cemetery’s two thousand burials, and displays photographs of the site in the early 1990s that make me dare to dream about what is possible at Odd Fellows and Rountree.
Only 98 headstones have been found in the cemetery, though the large undressed fieldstones scattered about most likely once marked graves.
A small weathered marker.
The new neighbors.
The grave of George Avery, the freedman and U.S. Colored Infantry soldier who was caretaker for the cemetery until his death in the 1930s. Avery kept mental, not written, records of the locations of burials in South Asheville.
The fine headstone of barber and Prince Hall mason Tecumseh C. Hamilton.
This headstone may mark the burial of someone who lived and died in slavery. It stands in a small cemetery in western Wilson County known to have been established for enslaved people and situated adjacent to the cemetery of the slaveowning family.
Though every large slaveholding farm probably had one, I know the exact location of only one cemetery in Wilson County established prior to the Civil War to hold the remains of enslaved people. (Please speak up if you can lead me to more.) Rountree, Odd Fellows, and Vick Cemeteries were not so-called slave cemeteries, but many men and women buried within them were born enslaved.
Frankly, I didn’t expect much. I’d made similar appeals before and then spent hours tangled up in briers by myself. December 15, 2020, though, was different. Despite cold weather and Covid-19, a dozen people (and, critically, a newspaper reporter) came with pruners and rakes and surgical masks — and Lane Street Project stepped into its purpose. We’re still feeling our way to long-range plans, but short-term we’re exceeding my wildest dreams.
What Lane Street Project has done in three months:
Developed a fantastic core team of volunteers responsible for planning, promoting, supplying, and managing bimonthly clean-ups at Odd Fellows Cemetery, as well as strategizing about ways to encourage community engagement in the reclamation of these historic African-American spaces
Conducted two informal and five planned clean-ups at Odd Fellows Cemetery with a multi-ethnic, multi-generational crew of enthusiastic, hardworking volunteers
Built a tool bank for volunteer use during clean-ups
Recovered the gravesite of educator, businessman and community leader Samuel H. Vick; cleared the grave of Red Hot Hose Company chief Benjamin Mincey; and named and reclaimed the gravesites of 22 more individuals (bringing the total at Odd Fellows to 76), for which we maintain a detailed spreadsheet
Developed relationships with established organizations doing similar work in African-American cemeteries across the Southeast
Developed relationships with allies in local government, business, and the faith community, as well as individuals willing to invest time and talent to our efforts to preserve and protect the historic burial grounds of thousands of Wilson’s African-Americans
Begun to map the locations of graves at the site
Developed a plan for responsible defoliation of invasive plant species in Odd Fellows cemetery
We’ve accomplished a lot in three months, but there is so much more to be done. Thanks so much to those who have supported us with gifts of labor, tools, coins, cheerleading, signal-boosting, and prayer. Please continue to do so! Follow us on Instagram at @lanestreetproject; join us on Facebook at Lane Street Project; reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. In the coming months, we’ll be broadening our focus from clean-up to documentation and restoration, and we will need your help at every step.
Photo of Corp. Willie Gay’s headstone courtesy of Drew C. Wilson.