I opened an email yesterday afternoon to find this photo of freshly cut Odd Fellows Cemetery. Thank you, Jeff Barefoot! I’ve been so discouraged by the discontinuation of mowing services from this section of the cemetery, so his unexpected work is really uplifting. This is the spirit of generosity and care that will see Lane Street Program through.
“Underneath America lies an apartheid of the departed. Violence done to the living is usually done to their dead, who are dug up, mowed down, and built on. In the Jim Crow South, Black people paid taxes that went to building and erecting Confederate monuments. They buried their own dead with the help of mutual-aid societies, fraternal organizations, and insurance policies. Cemeteries work on something like a pyramid scheme: payments for new plots cover the cost of maintaining old ones. ‘Perpetual care’ is, everywhere, notional, but that notion relies on an accumulation of capital that decades of disenfranchisement and discrimination have made impossible in many Black communities, even as racial terror also drove millions of people from the South during the Great Migration, leaving their ancestors behind. It’s amazing that Geer survived. Durham’s other Black cemeteries were run right over. ‘Hickstown’s part of the freeway,’ Gonzalez-Garcia told me, counting them off. ‘Violet Park is a church parking lot.'”
I’m inspired — and encouraged — by Friends of Geer Cemetery and Friends of East End Cemetery and others doing this work for descendants. Please read.
“Whosoever live and believeth in me, though we be dead, yet, shall we live.”
Just as last night’s Wilson City Council meeting closed, Mayor Carlton Stevens posed a question. Lane Street Project volunteers have put a lot of work into Odd Fellows Cemetery, he said. Could the Deputy City Manager shed any light on why the city has stopped cutting the grass?
Said Harry Tyson in response: City crews have never maintained Vick Cemetery. Rather, the City pays a private company to cut the grass and, every once in a while, throw down a little topsoil. “If” anything beyond Vick — like Odd Fellows for 25 years — has ever been cut, it was due to the benevolence of that company. The City doesn’t know anything about it. And doesn’t know anything about why it’s stopped.
A moment of silence to acknowledge my shock at this revelation. The City has not even been doing the little bit at Odd Fellows that I had been giving it credit for.
I think it is safe to say that neither the City nor the contractor (that it has been paying for 25 years to do something it would seem Public Works could do a lot more cheaply) plan to pass another blade over the weeds of Odd Fellows Cemetery.
We press on.
LSP Fam, please start talking to your people. Get them lined up and ready. We have work to do.
Remember, every setback is a set-up for a comeback.
Odd Fellows in weeds, September 2021.
This is going to ramble. It is not my best work. But I don’t have time to polish it before I need to post it. So bear with me, please, and read.
A sweetgum sapling emerges from the base of Delzela Rountree’s headstone.
It’s not oversight. It’s deliberate. After 25 years, the city of Wilson has stopped mowing the front section of Odd Fellows Cemetery. The vague reason proffered: the Cemetery Commission only covers Rest Haven and Maplewood Cemeteries, and Odd Fellows is privately owned.
Let’s talk about the Cemetery Commission part for a minute.
First, a “cemetery,” as defined in Wilson’s Code of Ordinances, Chapter 9 — Cemeteries:
(Code 1969, § 8-1) [emphasis added]
The Wilson Cemetery Commission was established per North Carolina General Statutes, specifically Chapter 160A — Cities and Towns, which states in pertinent part:
§ 160A-349.3. Property vested.
Upon the creation of such board the title to all property held by the town or city and used for cemetery purposes shall pass to and vest in said board, subject to the same limitations, conditions and restrictions as it was held by the town or city; provided, that the governing body of the town or city may at any time by resolution direct that title to such property shall pass to and vest in the town or city itself, and in such event it shall be the duty of the board and its officers to execute all necessary documents to effect such transfer and vesting. (Pub. Loc. 1923, c. 583, s. 3; 1979, 2nd Sess., c. 1247, s. 30.)
§ 160A-349.4. Control and management; superintendent and assistants; enumeration of powers.
The said board shall have the exclusive control and management of such cemetery; shall have the power to employ a superintendent and such assistants as may be needed, and may do any and all things pertaining to the control, maintenance, management and upkeep of the cemetery which the governing body of the town or city could have done, or which by law the governing body of the town or city shall hereafter be authorized to do. (Pub. Loc. 1923, c. 583, s. 4.)
The City of Wilson established Vick Cemetery in 1913. It was a cemetery owned and operated by the City. State statute requirements notwithstanding, the Cemetery Commission has never taken title to Vick Cemetery. To this day, the Commission neither controls, maintains, manages, nor keeps up Vick Cemetery. The Commission has failed its obligation even to publicly-owned Vick Cemetery. And to the point, the Commission is irrelevant to the City’s withdrawal of Public Works support from Odd Fellows.
(As a sidenote, the statute also states:
§ 160A-349.8. Commissioners to obtain maps, plats and deeds; list of lots sold and owners; surveys and plats to be made; additional lots, streets, walks and parkways; price of lots; regulation of sale of lots.
The board of trustees shall obtain from the governing body all maps, plats, deeds and other evidences relating to the lands, lots and property of the cemetery; they shall also obtain from the governing body of the town or city, as nearly as possible, an accurate list of the lots theretofore sold, together with the names of the owners thereof. The said board of trustees shall from time to time cause surveys to be made, maps and plats prepared, laying out additional lots, streets, paths, walks and parkways; shall fix a price at which such lots shall be sold, which price may from time to time, in the discretion of the board, be changed; shall adopt rules and regulations as to the sale of said lots and deliver to the purchaser or purchasers deed or evidences of title thereto. (Pub. Loc. 1923, c. 583, s. 8.)
Per the City’s responses to my Public Records Act requests, the Cemetery Commission has NO records of Vick Cemetery [or its publicly-owned predecessor Oakdale.] No maps, no plats, no deeds, no lists of lots or owners. The Cemetery Commission does not even have records of the graves disinterred from Oakdale/Oaklawn Cemetery in 1941 and reburied in Rest Haven Cemetery, the current “Black” cemetery. Nor does the Commission have early records of Rest Haven, which the City established in the early 1930s to replace Vick.
But I digress.)
Again: the City of Wilson owns Vick Cemetery. It established the cemetery in 1913 as a resting place for African-Americans, who were forbidden to purchase lots in Maplewood Cemetery. The City collected fees from lot sales and grave openings for 45 years, but lifted not a hand to maintain the cemetery’s eight acres. In the 1950s, the City condemned Vick and closed it, shifting burials to another segregated public cemetery, Rest Haven. From the 1950s to the mid-1990s, Vick Cemetery, along with adjacent Odd Fellows and Rountree Cemeteries, devolved to woodland and dumping ground.
In 1990, following decades of denial, the City admitted that it owns Vick cemetery. After several years of haggling and foot-dragging, the City settled on a plan that — astoundingly — resulted in the clear-cutting of Vick Cemetery, the removal of its headstones, and the erection of a single memorial in 1996. The City also created a small parking lot at the border of Vick and Odd Fellows Cemeteries and installed two large granite blocks inscribed “Rountree-Vick Cemetery.” Until this year, the City’s Public Works Department regularly cut the grass in the front section of Odd Fellows (which it calls Rountree) when it mowed Vick. (Rountree Cemetery is actually another private cemetery on the other side of Odd Fellows.)
I repeat: the Cemetery Commission has never cared for Vick Cemetery. Rather, the City of Wilson, however, spent decades ignoring (and, alternately, abusing) its property. While the City was erecting a massive blond-brick Mission Style entrance and carefully manicuring the shady paths of Maplewood’s park-like landscape, the families of Vick’s dead were pleading for help navigating the muddy roads that led to that graveyard. In the 1980s and early ’90s, when citizens demanded that the City clear Vick of decades of trash, some councilmen blamed descendant families for letting the cemetery — the city’s own property — fall into disrepair. In the end, the City pulled up the Vick’s remaining headstones and, within the past 20 years, destroyed them.
Vick Cemetery today. More than 1500 graves lie under this field. Every Black Wilsonian whose family has been here more than 50 years has people under this grass.
A closer look at the memorial site, which is shrouded by overgrown hollies and dead cherry trees and is in itself a testament to City neglect.
Now to the “Odd Fellows is privately owned” piece. In 1900, African-Americans were barred from Maplewood, the lovely public cemetery their taxes supported. The “colored” city cemetery was crowded and flood-prone and ill-maintained. Seeking better options, Hannibal Lodge #1552, Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, established its own burial ground. The cemetery is the resting place of Samuel H. Vick and his family and two to three generations of the African-American men and women who built East Wilson and its institutions during the darkest days of Jim Crow.
Within 15 years, the City purchased eight acres adjacent to Odd Fellows to establish a new Black cemetery. However, both it and Odd Fellows Cemetery fell from use around 1950 and by the 1960s were trash heaps. The Odd Fellows Lodge went defunct in the 1980s, leaving its Cemetery with no real owner.
In January 2021, a multi-ethnic, multi-generational, multi-religious group of volunteers came together to reclaim the vine-strangled rear of Odd Fellows Cemetery. Twice a month for the next four months, dozens donated time and muscle to restore honor and dignity to Odd Fellows’ forgotten dead. In the wake of Lane Street Project’s powerful display of collective purpose, the City abruptly halted its 25-year practice of mowing the strip of graveyard nearest the road.
THIS ISN’T ABOUT OWNERSHIP. IT’S ABOUT EQUITY.
Having disinvested in East Wilson for so long, having forsaken its institutions, having desecrated its public burial grounds, having watered the west side while leaving the east to wither on the vine, will the City continue to withhold even this minor gesture of acknowledgement of and respect for Black bodies?
Photos by Lisa Y. Henderson, September 2021.
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.
Clipping courtesy of J. Robert Boykin III.
For twenty-five years, the City of Wilson’s Public Works Department has mowed the empty field that marks Vick Cemetery and a small strip of land at the front of Odd Fellows Cemetery.
In December 2020, Lane Street Project volunteers began to remove 40+ years of overgrowth from Odd Fellows Cemetery, clipping vines, cutting down small trees, hauling out debris, and reclaiming dozens of headstones. Except to pick up bulk debris from the roadside after clean-up days, the City has offered no assistance with this project. Most elected officials — including the councilperson in whose district the cemetery sits — have been utterly silent about the work being done to honor and restore dignity to generations of Wilson’s African-American dead.
LSP went is on summer hiatus at Odd Fellows. We’ll be back in late fall, when temperatures cool and foliage goes dormant. The City, however, is apparently on permanent hiatus. Despite having maintained part of Odd Fellows since the mid-1990s, it stopped cold this year, seemingly in response to LSP’s efforts to clear the remainder of the property. Despite requests made in June, July, and August, Public Works has not mowed this cemetery once in 2021, and it looks worse now than it has in decades.
Odd Fellows Cemetery overrun with sedge and dog fennel this morning. Wisteria is galloping in from the edges, too.
A newly discarded stone slab. (Monument companies, check yourselves.)
Charles S. Thomas’ headstone, nearly swallowed up.
The City has continued to mow Vick this summer, so the decision not to mow Odd Fellows is deliberate. I will continue to press for the City to resume maintenance at Odd Fellows and for explanations if they do not intend to do so. If you live in Wilson, your outreach to city council, the mayor, the city manager, and/or the director of Public Works to demand answers and action is much appreciated.
See an update, in which the City states it has never cut the grass at Odd Fellows, here.
Wilson Daily Times, 19 August 1916.
Sarah Best Thomas‘ gravestone is among those that remain standing in Odd Fellows Cemetery.
Clipping courtesy of J. Robert Boykin III.
No good deed goes unpunished.
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.
Rosa Oats Barnes‘ broken headstone lies in Odd Fellows cemetery a short distance from her parents and sister Ella Oates.
Rosa Wife of Matthew Barnes
On 25 August 1919, Matthew Barnes, 21, of Wilson, son of Nat and Emma Barnes, married Rosa Oats, 18, of Wilson, daughter of Charles Oats. A.M.E. Zion minister B.P. Coward performed the ceremony in the presence of John Norfleet, J.L. Moore, and James Whitley.
In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Railroad Street, tobacco factory worker Emma Barnes, 48, widow; son Matthew, 23, auto garage laborer; and daughter-in-law Rosa, 18, tobacco factory worker.
Rosa Oates died 18 November 1922 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was 18 years old [actually, about 21]; was born in Wilson County to Charles Oats and Emma Williams; was divorced from Matthew Barnes; lived on Ash Street; and worked as a factory worker at Flemmings. Charlie Oats was informant.
Photo by Lisa Y. Henderson, April 2021.
None of these veterans’ headstones have yet been found in Rountree, Odd Fellows, or Vick Cemeteries, the cemeteries collectively known as “Rountree.”
- David McPhail
Dave McPhail registered for the World War I draft in 1917. Per his registration card, he was born April 1896 in Wade, N.C.; lived in Darden’s Alley; worked as an auto mechanic for S.H. Vick; and was single.
David McPhail died 6 March 1936 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born 31 December 1899 in Cumberland County to Raford and Laura McPhail; lived at 208 South Vick; was married to Juanita McPhail; and worked as a mechanic.
- Jessie Oliver
Jessie Oliver registered for the World War I draft in 1917. Per his registration card, he was born 24 December 1890 in Waynesboro, Georgia; lived in Black Creek; worked as a laborer for M.B. Aycock; and was single.
Jessie Oliver died 12 February 1938 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was 48 years old; was born in Georgia; was divorced; and worked as a laborer. Mary Jones was informant.
- Robert Reaves
Robert Reaves died 7 December 1932 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was 37 years old; was born in Orangeburg, S.C., to Robert and Luella Reaves; was married to Daisy Reaves; lived at 510 Smith Street; and worked as a mechanic for a cement finisher.
- Doc Richardson
Doc Richardson registered for the World War I draft in Wilson County in 1917. Per his registration card, he was born in 1887 in Johnston County, N.C.; lived at 523 Lodge Street, Wilson; and worked as a railroad section hand for J.B. Hooks.
Doc Richardson died 5 March 1937 at Mercy Hospital in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born 12 March 1889 to David and Vicey Ann Richardson; was single; worked as a laborer; and lived at 713 Viola Street. Lee Richardson was informant.
- Dock Royall
Dock Royall died 31 March 1938 at Mercy Hospital in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born 14 September 1898 in Sampson County, N.C., to Samuel and Rachel Royall; was married to Ossie Mae Royall; lived at 310 Hackney Street; worked as a mechanic for Hackney Body Company. George W. Royall of Clinton was informant.
- Plummer Williams
Plummer Williams registered for the World War I draft in Wilson County in 1917. Per his registration card, he was born in 1896 in Pitt County, N.C.; lived at Route 6, Wilson; worked as a farm hand for W.F. Williams, Wilson; and was single.
Plummer Williams died 11 December 1937 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was 44 years old; was married to Annie Williams; worked as a common laborer; and was born in Falkland [Pitt County], N.C., to Haywood Williams and Francis Barnes.