Elm City Colored Cemetery

Cemeteries, no. 5, pt. 2: Elm City Colored Cemetery.

Heritage Cemetery today, annotated, per Google Maps.

I recently revisited Elm City Colored Cemetery, now known as Heritage Cemetery. Founded in 1892 and containing hundreds of graves, Heritage offers a glimpse of what Odd Fellows and Vick Cemeteries might have looked like with consistent, even if half-hearted, maintenance over the last 70 years. 

The front section of Heritage is lightly wooded, but with little undergrowth and none of the invasive vines seen in Odd Fellows or Vick. (None of the grave plantings either, such as daffodils or yuccas.)

This large stuccoed brick vault, which appears to belong to the Wynn family, is the only one in the cemetery. There are none similar in Odd Fellows, and we don’t know if there were any in Vick.

The back section of Heritage is an open field traversed by a drainage ditch. In contrast to graves in the front section, which generally lie roughly east-southeast to west-northwest, graves here are orientated northeast to southwest.

As with graves in Odd Fellows, and probably much of Vick, Heritage’s graves primarily are arranged in family groups, not ranks of straight lines. 

Aerial view of Elm City Colored Cemetery, 1940.

Photos by Lisa Y. Henderson, February 2023.

Reverse-N Style headstones.

I’ve gone on and on about the artistry of Clarence B. Best, the marble cutter who carved thousands of gravestones in and around Wilson County between the 1920s and mid-1970s. Now, after a few years of exploring local African-American cemeteries, I recognize the signature work of other monument makers. Whether the work of an individual, like Best, or a company, they were likely produced in Wilson or an adjoining county, and perhaps by African-American craftsmen.

On a recent visit to the former Elm City Colored Cemetery, now known as Heritage Cemetery, I noticed these two concrete markers, clearly produced by the same maker. Other than one other (Charlie Armstrong) I saw on an earlier visit to Heritage, these are the only markers I have seen in this style, but I will be on the lookout for more. All are simple cement slabs with half-round tops, and their inscriptions feature large letters deeply drawn in a natural handwritten style. Two are decorated by a large naturalistic leaf — one a sweetgum and the other an oak — drawn above the inscription. Two of the names on the headstones are spelled with double N’s, the first of which is reversed.

The three Reverse-N Style headstones found so far mark the graves of two siblings (Charlie Armstrong and Annie Armstrong Braswell Dawson) and a collateral relative (Dennis Batts, who was the father of Annie Dawson’s husband’s second wife).

  • Dennis Batts

Dennis Batts Died June th 8 1932

In the 1870 census of Joyners township, Wilson County: Orren Batts, 41, wife Mary, 34, and children Dennis, 16, Amos, 14, Henriet, 10, Haywood, 9, Precilla, 5, and Louisa, 3. In the 1880 census of Toisnot: Orren Batts, 53, wife Mary, 47, and children Haywood, 19, Priscilla, 14, Louiza, 12, John, 9, Reddick, 7, and James B. Batts, 1.

On 8 February 1877, Dennis Batts, 22, married Rose Farmer, 21, at Jarman Farmer’s in Wilson County.

In the 1880 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: Dennis Batts, 26, farmer; wife Rhoda A., 26; sons John H., 2, and William A., 5 months; and sister-in-law Maggie Farmer, 12, domestic servant.

In the 1900 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: widower Dennis Batts, 46, farmer, and children John H., 22, William A., 20, Mary J., 17, Patience, 15, Haywood, 13, Hattie, 11, Samuel, 9, Gorman, 6, and Rosa, 3.

On 25 October 1900, Dennis Batts, 47, son of Orren and Mary Batts, married William Ann Whitley, 23, daughter of Mingo and Catharine Whitley, at Isaac Page’s in Toisnot township, Wilson County. Baptist minister Joseph Barnes performed the ceremony in the presence of Red Mack, Bloss Barnes, and Anna Brown.

On 17 February 1909, Sidney Harriss, 24, of Toisnot, son of Matthew and Tempy Ann Harris, married Hattie Lena Batts, 19, of Toisnot, daughter of Dennis and Rose Ann Batts at Dennis Batts’ house. Witnesses were G.A. Gaston, J.G. Mitchell, and J.F. Carter, all of Elm City.

In the 1910 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: on Gooch and Parkers School House Road, farmer Dennis Batts, 46, and children Mary J., 27, Patsy, 25, Samy, 18, Jarman, 15, Jannie, 7, and Turner, 4.

On 8 November 1916, Dennis Batts, 62, of Toisnot township, son of Orrin and Mary Batts, married Eliza Allen, 23, of Toisnot township, daughter of Owen and Minnie Allen, at Rose Bud. Free Will Baptist minister J.H. Lynn performed the ceremony in the presence of Lu Hagans, William Pitt, and Walter Barnes, all of Wilson.

Jessie Batts died 26 May 1921 in Toisnot township, Wilson County. Per his death certificate, he was born 26 November 1919 in Wilson County to Dennis Batts and Eliza Allen. Dennis Batts was informant.

In the 1930 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: paying $5/month rent, Dennis Batts, 75; wife Eliza, 50, hotel servant; and children Lou, 13, and George R., 8.

Dennis Batts died 9 June 1932 in Elm City, Toisnot township, Wilson County. Per his death certificate, he was born 30 May 1854 in Wilson County to Arnold Batts and Mary Farmer; was married to Eliza Batts; worked as a tenant farmer; and was buried in Elm City. Sidney Harris was informant.

On 2 September 1932, Van Dawson, 56, of Toisnot township, son of Sarah Dawson, married Jennie Batts, 30, of Toisnot township, daughter of Dennis and William Ann Batts, in Wilson.

  • Annie Dawson

Annie Dawson (with large incised sweetgum leaf)

In the 1870 census of Upper Town Creek township, Edgecombe County: farm laborer Wright Barnes, 54, Lucinda Armstrong, 31, and Charles, 7, Ann, 5, Shade, 16, and Goddin Armstrong, 7.

In the 1880 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: Lizette Armstrong, 51, Lucinda, 41, Charley L., 16, Gray Anna, 13, and Shadrick, 10.

On 6 February 1886, Gray Braswell, 28, married Aner Armstrong, 19, at Lucinder Armstrong’s residence in Wilson County. Missionary Baptist minister S.G. Alston performed the ceremony in the presence of Fred McGuire, James J. Taylor, and Frank Barnes.

On 18 February 1897, Van Dawson, 21, married Annie Braswell, 27, at the bride’s residence in Wilson County.

In the 1900 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: day laborer Van Dawson, 23; wife Anne, 37; and niece Sally Armstrong, 17.

In the 1910 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: on Elm City Lane, lumber wagon teamster Van Dawson, 36; wife Annie, 42, laundress; and daughter Estell, 9.

In 1918, Van Dawson registered for the World War I draft in Wilson County. Per his registration card, he was born 2 March 1873; lived in Elm City, Wilson County; was a self-employed farmer; and his nearest relative was wife Annie Dawson. He signed his card with an X.

Annie Dawson died 22 August 1929 in Elm City, Toisnot township, Wilson County. Per her death certificate, she was 55 years old; was born in Elm City to P[illegible] and Lucinda Armstrong; was married; and farmed for Dr. E.G. Moon. Van Dawson was informant. [Van Dawson later married a daughter of Dennis Batts; see above.]

Conveyance to the Elm City Colored Cemetery trustees.

Deed Book 81, page 323.

In 1893, Ellen Williams, J.H. Joyner, Joseph Short, Haywood Batts, Amos Whitley, William Barnes, George Barnes, Robert Barnes, Agatha Williams, Frank Barnes, James Williams, Doublin Barnes, Amerson Parker, George Gaston, Joshua Farmer, Louis Deans, Leah Bullock, Elbert Locust, John Marshaw, Richard Battle, William Pender, George Barnes Jr., and Proctor Battle “associate[d] themselves” to purchase land to establish an African-American cemetery just outside Elm City. The group bought a two and a half acre parcel from Thomas G. Dixon and wife on 6 January 1893. As they began to sell burial plots, however, they ran into a problem. Securing the signatures of all the owners on every single sale was difficult and time-consuming.

After fifteen years of this struggle, on 28 September 1908, the owners conveyed the Elm City Colored Cemetery to three of their number — Robert Barnes, Haywood Batts, and George Barnes — as trustees.