Another city doing it better than Wilson — Elizabeth City, North Carolina.
Thirteen-acre Oak Grove cemetery was founded about 1886 as a burial ground for African-Americans. The City of Elizabeth City took ownership of the cemetery in 1964, and its newer sections are still open for burials.
In 2021, Elizabeth City officials agreed to help fund an archaeological survey to identify marked and unmarked graves at Old Oak Grove. The $50,800 survey was funded by a $30,480 grant from the state’s Historic Preservation Fund with the remaining $20,320 supplied by the city. [Here’s a takeaway, City of Wilson — there’s grant money out there!]
The first phase of the project included a land survey to mark and record the boundaries of the cemetery. [In other words, unlike Wilson, Elizabeth City had a survey map prepared and recorded.] Industry leaders New South Associates then performed a ground-penetrating radar survey of Old Oak Grove, finding evidence of 5,418 graves, of which 2,331 are unmarked (including some found under dirt paths in the cemetery). New South’s report recommended that Elizabeth City nominate Old Oak Grove for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.
Though I have no doubt the road to enlightened treatment of Old Oak Grove was a stony one to tread, Elizabeth City now understands its value as a selling point for the city. The City’s tourism website devotes a whole page to the site, touting its significance to local history as well as national events. [Looking at you, Wilson County Tourism Development Authority.]
And you, Barton College. Per Visit Elizabeth City:
“In 2021, Elizabeth City State University and the Museum of the Albemarle partnered with the NC African American Heritage Commission (NC AAHC) and the Office of State Archaeology (OSA) to teach preservation techniques focused on Elizabeth City African American cemeteries. At Old Oak Grove Cemetery, techniques and best practices were shared with current ESCU history students on how to photograph and survey the grounds. Proper cleaning methods of gravestones were demonstrated and the ECSU students and professors cleaned six historic markers. These headstones memorialized Civil War veterans who were enlisted in the United States Colored Troops (USCT) Heavy Artillery Regiment.
“Cemetery Hours of Operation: Year-round. The cemetery is maintained by the Elizabeth City Department of Parks and Recreation and is open from dawn to dusk. Street parking is available. Please be respectful of these hallowed grounds.”
There are lots of models out here for progressive public-private partnerships and community engagement around neglected and abused African-American cemeteries. The City of Wilson has not chosen one.
Photos courtesy of visitelizabethcity.com.