cemetery

Lane Street Project: a road trip to South Asheville Cemetery.

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.

A cluster of headstones among the oaks, tulip poplars, and maples that tower over South Asheville Cemetery.

Photos by Lisa Y. Henderson, June 2021.

Lane Street Project: Juneteenth.

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.

I call the names of those we know:

Dave Barnes (1861-1913)

Della Hines Barnes (1858-1935)

Smith Bennett (1852-1920)

Mark H. Cotton (ca.1840-1934)

Lucy Hill Dawson (1860-1917)

Rev. Henry W. Farrior (1859-1937)

Prince Mincey (1841-1902)

Rev. John H. Scott (1857-1940)

Hardy Tate (1853-1938)

Rachel Barnes Taylor (1863-1927)

Daniel Vick (ca.1840-1908)

Fannie Blount Vick (ca.1842-1890s)

Samuel H. Vick (1861-1946)

 

A Memorial Day parade to the cemetery.

Memorial Day services at “the cemetery” — which might have been Rest Haven, but was probably what we now know as Vick and Odd Fellows Cemeteries — were a regular event in the early 20th century.

Wilson Daily Times, 29 May 1940.

Memorial Day celebration at Rountree Cemetery.

Wilson Daily Times, 27 May 1932.

On Memorial Day 1932, Henry Ellis Post #17 of the American Legion led a group in a march from post headquarters to Rountree Cemetery [which was probably actually Odd Fellows or Vick Cemetery.] There, they held a program that “includes song services and public speaking at which special tribute will be paid to the soldiers of all wars who sleep in Roundtree’s cemetery.

[Note: Via Lane Street Project, I had hoped to be able to arrange a ceremony with Post #17 for this Memorial Day. Perhaps in 2022.]

Lane Street Project: April clean-up schedule.

Finally — a warm community clean-up day!

Please come out to Odd Fellows Cemetery on April 10 and 24 and join your neighbors in the clean-up of three historic African-American cemeteries. All are welcome!

This month, we really need your help:

  • Pruning shrubs and limbing up hollies around the Vick Cemetery monument
  • Cutting wisteria stumps in Odd Fellows Cemetery close to the ground for later defoliation treatment
  • Clearing underbrush and removing trash
  • Recording GPS coordinates for each grave marker (email me at lanestreetproject@gmail.com if you’re interested in this task)

Please protect yourself on-site — masks required, boots and gloves strongly encouraged. 

As always, THANK YOU!

Lane Street Project: three months in.

On 13 December 2020, I posted this:

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 lanestreetproject@gmail.com. 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.

Lane Street Project: African-American cemeteries and cemetery projects.

Odd Fellows Cemetery, Wilson, N.C., January 2021.

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.

NORTH CAROLINA

  • Rountree, Odd Fellows and Vick Cemeteries, Lane Street Project, Wilson
  • Oakdale Cemetery, Wilson
  • South Asheville Cemetery, Asheville
  • Cemetery, Ayden
  • Black Bottom Memorial Cemetery, Belhaven
  • Cedar Grove Cemetery, Charlotte
  • Geer Cemetery, Friends of Geer, Durham
  • Oak Grove Cemetery, Elizabeth City
  • Elm City Colored Cemetery, Elm City
  • Greenleaf Cemetery, Goldsboro
  • Bryan Cemetery, James City
  • Glades and McDowell Cemeteries, McDowell Cemetery Association, Marion
  • Greenwood Cemetery, New Bern
  • Oberlin Cemetery, Raleigh
  • Unity Cemetery, Rocky Mount
  • John N. Smith Cemetery, Cemetery Restoration Committee, Southport
  • Green Street/Union Grove Cemetery, Statesville
  • Pine Forest Cemetery, Wilmington
  • Saint Phillips Moravian Second Graveyard, Winston-Salem

ALABAMA

ARKANSAS

  • Cherokee Cemetery, Huntington

FLORIDA

GEORGIA

ILLINOIS

KENTUCKY

  • African Cemetery #2, Lexington

MARYLAND

MICHIGAN

  • Detroit Memorial Park, Detroit

MISSISSIPPI

  • Old Lottville Cemetery, Farmhaven
  • Saint Luke’s Cemetery, Meridian
  • Noble Cemetery, Yazoo County

NEW JERSEY

  • African Burying Ground, Bedminster
  • Johnson Cemetery, Camden

NEW YORK

  • Mount Zion Cemetery, Kingston
  • African Burial Ground, Manhattan

PENNSYLVANIA

SOUTH CAROLINA

  • Douglas Cemetery, Columbia
  • Randolph Cemetery, Columbia
  • Silver Bluff Cemetery, Jackson
  • Old Soapstone Cemetery, “Little Liberia,” Pumpkintown

TENNESSEE

  • Beck Knob Cemetery, Chattanooga

TEXAS

VIRGINIA

WASHINGTON, D.C.

  • Columbian Harmony Cemetery
  • Mount Zion and Female Union Band Society Cemetery

WEST VIRGINIA

  • Anderson Cemetery, Glen Allen

“You got to know where you and how you got to where you are.” — Charles White, local historian, Buckingham County, Virginia

Lane Street Project: Bones found along the road.

In September 1985, a man jogging along Lane Street discovered human bones lying in a ditch. What happened after is a dispiritingly familiar tale of denial and deflection. 

Wilson Daily Times, 23 September 1985.

Wilson Daily Times, 24 September 1985.

In a nutshell:

  • The jogger had the bones examined by a friend who worked in the Edgecombe County Coroner’s Office, who estimated they were 50 to 60 years old. (The bones themselves were from a 50 to 60 year-old person? Or had been buried 50 to 60 years prior? And why didn’t the Wilson County coroner step in immediately?)
  • The jogger found the bones “on the left side of Lane Street Extension about ten feet from a grave that had been capped with concrete.” (“Left side” is relative, and maddeningly imprecise in a news story, but I interpret this as the opposite side of the road from the main cemeteries, i.e. the left side if one is facing MLK Parkway/Highway 264.)
  • A Cemetery Commission spokesperson identified four cemeteries on Lane Street. (There were, in fact, six — Masonic, Hamilton, Rest Haven, Vick, Odd Fellows, and Rountree.)
  • The city did not begin maintaining Lane Street until after 1972, when it annexed land east and south of Highways 301 and 264. “About five years ago [i.e. 1980], the city attempted to define the road and found, because of the numerous graves in the area, only a 40- to 45-foot right of way could be allowed, compared to the usual 60-foot right of way.” 
  • The city “routinely” scraped the dirt road and cleared the ditches, but “wasn’t sure” when Lane Street had last been maintained. (Yes, you read that right. Past Rest Haven and around to its intersection with Highway 264, Lane Street was unpaved until the late 1980s. Maybe the 1990s. I’ll search for a precise date.)
  • Citing the unusual nature of the find, a county health department spokesperson said she would have to check to determine who was responsible for reburying the bones.
  • The next day, the Public Works Department weighed in to disclaim any responsibility. “We’re not doing anything right now. We’re not aware that we have disturbed any graves.” Further, its spokesman asserted his belief that bones had been recently deposited.
  • He allowed that some unusual things had taken place though. “There is a concrete slab over one grave on one side of the road that wasn’t there when we annexed the property in 1972. The marker says the person died in 1950, but the slab has been poured in the last five or six years.” (I saw that slab as a child riding my bicycle on Lane Street in the mid-1970s. It lay at the very edge of the ditch, with one long edge fully exposed, on the side of the road opposite the main cemeteries. Rountree Missionary Baptist Church owns parcels on both sides of the road, as noted here. Whenever the slab was laid — by a family attempting to ward off the encroaching roadway? — it is no longer there. See my visit to that side of the road here and here.)
  • A former county sanitarian reported that he’d received a call from a woman who believed her relatives might be buried under Lane Street. (This just gets worse and worse.) Public Works: “Asa was going to look into that for me. It could be that we need to find out who that could be and see if they want to do some digging out there to remove the remains.” (“Could be”? And who is “they”? The families whose relatives’ graves the city desecrated?)
  • The police removed the bones, but provided no one knowledgeable enough to make a comment.

And this is the last mention of these bones, or graves lost under Lane Street, that I have found to date. Were they ever reburied? Where? If they weren’t old, was there ever an investigation to determine to whom they belonged and how they came to rest in a Lane Street ditch?

Many thanks to Tracey Barnes for bringing the September 24th article to my attention and alerting me to this chapter of the Lane Street cemeteries’ history.

Lane Street Project: 20 February clean-up.

Lane Street Project’s fourth official clean-up day dawned blue and brilliant … and frigid. Dozens of stalwarts appeared, though, right on time. Any day we can come together for a common purpose is a good day, but today was extra special. Many thanks to LSP Team Member Raven S. Farmer, who first proposed a candlelighting service to honor those buried in these cemeteries; to Dr. Judy Wellington Rashid, who shared impactful words of prayer, reflection, and challenge; and to all who gathered. Many were moved to voice their thoughts about their Lane Street Project experiences, and we are grateful for your support and the example of unity and community that you embody.

LSP Team Members Charles Eric Jones, Raven S. Farmer, LaMonique Hamilton, Portia Newman, Joyah Bulluck, and Brittany Daniel with Rev. A. Kim Reives and Dr. Judy Wellington Rashid, our esteemed guests and allies.

A big “thank you” to Wilson County Sheriff Calvin Woodard, who showed up not just to show up, but to put in work! Sheriff Woodard’s Wilson County roots run deep, and he likely has family buried in one of the LSP cemeteries.

This chain-link fence divides Vick and Odd Fellows cemeteries. Before yesterday morning, it was nearly invisible under a heavy cloak of honeysuckle and weedy saplings. Targeted attacks on specific problem areas are yielding immediately visible results.

When we tell you this is a multigenerational effort, we mean it!

The young people of the Wilson Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints have shown incredible commitment to the Lane Street Project’s work. Thank you!

A generous donor has provided a roll-off dumpster for LSP clean-ups. All of this brush is the result of just one work day! 

Today’s great find — a brick burial vault, the first located in Odd Fellows cemetery.

——

Dr. Rashid graciously shared the text of her responsive reading yesterday:

To our Ancestors here in these hallowed grounds, because you were, we are.

So we are here.

As in the song “The Impossible Dream” by the Temptations, we dare to fight the unbeatable foe and to run where the brave dare not go.

So we are here.

We will right the unrightable wrong and try even when our arms are too weary.

So we are here.

We understand that “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Martin Luther King Jr.

So we are here.

“We chose to tell OURstory, not HIStory.” Dr. Judy Rashid.

So we are here.

“We recognize that the whole truth is the matter, plus the hidden facts.” Dr. Judy Rashid.

So we are here.  

“Never allow anyone to tell you that your history and culture are not important. Never let anyone tell you ‘it happened a long time ago — get over it!’ Make your history sacred.” Runoko Rashidi

So we are here.

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Alvin Toffler.

So we are here.

“No people are really free until they become the instrument of their own liberation. Freedom is not legacy that is bequeathed from one generation to another. Each generation must take and maintain its freedom with its own hands.” John Henrik Clarke.

So we are here.

“Let us not  forget who we were so we will know what we still can be.” John Henrik Clarke, paraphrased.

So we are here.

“It is up to us to tell our story in our own way without stuttering, without stammering, without whispering and without apologies.” Runoko Rashidi.

So we are here.

“We are not organized to hate other men but to lift ourselves and to demand respect for all humanity.” Marcus Garvey.

So we are here.

Finally, we know that “when your roots are so deep, there is no reason to fear the wind.” African proverb.

So we are here.

Many thanks to Brittany Daniel, Portia Newman, and A. Kim Reives for these photographs.

“Gone But Not Forgotten,” again.

There was a recording glitch the first time around, so …

It’s the Encore (and a little bit updated) Edition of GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN: Wilson’s African-American Cemeteries.

You are invited to attend via Zoom, 15 February 2021 at 7:00 PM Eastern Time.

Please register in advance for this meeting:
https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZMkdO6qpzMiG9W-Pby5RTH1Ay4vgkHsT2pC

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email with information about joining the meeting.

If you missed the first talk, I hope to see you at this one!

Photograph of Lula Dew Wooten’s gravestone in Odd Fellows cemetery by Lisa Y. Henderson, January 2021.