Lane Street Project

Lane Street Project: the New York Times on “the decay, destruction and desecration plaguing many of America’s Black cemeteries.”

Last week, The New York Times shined its powerful spotlight on three African-American cemeteries and the women fighting to save them.

As disheartening as the details of these cemeteries are — Vick is not the only graveyard ravished by a utility company — I am encouraged by the increasing attention paid to their plights and the knowledge that Lane Street Project is not alone in its struggle. Or its dreams. “I don’t want to keep trying to save the land,” said Lisa Fager, who fights for Washington, D.C.’s Mount Zion-Female Union Band Society cemeteries, “I want to save the people and their stories.”

Lane Street Project: dispelling myths about 1995.

In April 1995, this notice appeared in the local paper:

Wilson Daily Times, 22 April 1995.

Some have questioned whether, at this meeting, the community “agreed” with the removal of headstones and the erection of a central monument at Vick Cemetery. At least one person believes the City made a “reasonable decision” to remove the stones and was attempting “to do the correct thing for the community ….”*

Condensed to their essence, intended or not, these positions blame the Vick descendant community for the current condition of the cemetery and should be rejected. Here’s the record we have:

Sometime in late 1994, the City solicited bids for the restoration of Vick Cemetery. The City’s project description opened with a Project Location and Overview:

In Section 4A of the project description, entitled “Restoration and Improvement S.H. Vick Cemetery Lane St. Wilson, N.C.”: “All existing graves whether marked by a grave marker or not shall be identified and located so as to be able to be re-located after completion of the work. A detailed survey may be needed in order to ensure that graves are marked in the correct location after completion of the work. A drawing showing all graves shall be prepared for future reference. All existing tombstones shall be removed, labeled, and stored until after all work is completed.” 

Per Section 4E: “All graves identified and located prior to construction shall be re-located and marked. Graves shall be marked in one of two ways: (1) Tombstones removed from graves prior to construction shall be reset at the proper grave locations. (2) Any unmarked graves which were located shall be marked by means of a small metal marker as typically used in cemeteries. A map showing the locations of all graves shall be furnished to the City of Wilson.”

(I don’t know who the City Attorney was in 1994, but I have to assume he did not vet this description, as it falls afoul of state law at several points.)

In November 1994, Wilson City Council voted 4-2 to award the contract to PLT Construction Company.

City council minutes – at least as supplied to me per a public records request – do not reflect any later discussions about changing the scope of the Vick restoration project. The City has produced no documents to show when or why the original plan to reset the headstones was altered.

The City’s public meeting took place on 24 April 1995 at B.O. Barnes Elementary. In response to my public records requests, the City has produced no documents reflecting what occurred at this meeting, and I have found no newspaper accounts. Without evidence, I decline to believe that community members were asked if they would rather have than a central monument than the original headstones reset and that they opted for the former. (In any case, removing all the headstones from a cemetery is unlawful, and the general public had no right to determine whether to permanently remove markers from graves to which they had no personal claim.)

On June 5, 1995, PLT submitted its invoice for its work at Vick with the notation “deduct for replacing headstones and portion of survey work. -$4,500.00.” Thus, by early June, PLT had finished its work, and the headstones were gone.

In late August 1995, the Wilson Daily Times announced that the city would erect a single monument in the middle of Vick Cemetery. (The article also said the city would install lighting at the site (which it never did) and that fencing was not necessary.) “It would help, from a maintenance standpoint, to have one big monument,” City Manager Ed Wyatt said, citing the cost and time required to mow around headstones. Wyatt stated that the City’s public works department would store Vick’s intact headstones. (Contemporaneous accounts of Vick often note the small number and poor condition of the headstones. Given the neglect and abuse of Vick over eight decades, there is no wonder that its monuments were lost or badly damaged, but this situation is chargeable to the City, not Vick’s families.) Wyatt also stated that “the general concept of a central monument was first mentioned at a neighborhood meeting.” 

Wilson Daily Times, 29 August 1995.

Again, assuming this was true, we have no evidence of how or when this “general concept” morphed into implemented plan. The community could very well have agreed to a central monument, but intended it to augment, rather than replace, the remaining headstones. (After all, doesn’t Maplewood Cemetery have a big monument on its grounds?) Whatever the discussion was, I am certain that community members were not aware that removing headstones from and grading the surface of a cemetery were unlawful actions. Nor, in my belief, were they advised that the original headstones eventually would  be destroyed or that, in two years’ time, the City would sanction the intrusion of ninety-foot steel transmission poles into Vick’s graves.

Even if benign in some aspects, the City’s intentions in 1995 do not outweigh the impact of the decisions made, and blame or collusion cannot be thrown on the community. The City now has an opportunity to acknowledge the harm done, reconsider its decisions, and make better choices. Let’s do it.

*These quotes are lifted from an email, obtained via public records request, that was sent to Deputy City Manager Rodger Lentz by a Wilson resident on 24 August 2023. The writer, who I doubt was present at B.O. Barnes in April 1995 or is claimed kin to anyone buried in Vick, went on to state: “Hopefully the issue will begin to go away but I fear that there are people who will try to continue to stir this pot.” Rest assured that the stirring has just gotten started.

Lane Street Project: in hope of brighter days.

Rev. H. Maurice Barnes, Rev. Carlton Best, and I held a productive, cathartic meeting with Mayor Carlton Stevens and Councilmember Gillettia Morgan yesterday morning. It was the first of what I anticipate will be many conversations, and I look forward to working together for a better future for Vick Cemetery and the dead lying within it.

I sent this email to the mayor and council back in May. The offer stands for all.

Photo by Lisa Y. Henderson, August 2023.

Lane Street Project: response to the 23 July 2023 records request, part 5.

See below my two takeaways from this email, in which City Manager Grant Goings summarizes and comments on remarks made by the public at the 18 May 2023 council meeting.

First, “Obviously, the company that performed the survey will not recommend we build a fence on top of potential graves. We will coordinate the location of any fence with the survey results. The width of land we have to work with between the survey border and the required road right of way may determine what type of fence options we have.”

  • Here’s New South’s recommendation on fencing. Keyword: “possibly.”

  • There is no “width of land … to work with between the survey border and the required road right of way.” The right-of-way contains graves. The power poles are in the cemetery, running along, but outside, the right-of-way. Where’s a fence going to go?

Second, “Mr. Hooks criticized the Council for following the recommendations of the study as it applies to a fence.”

  • Castonoble Hooks, like every other citizen (or even non-citizen) of Wilson, has every right to criticize council. Full stop.

Third, off topic, but: I happen to agree with the concern expressed by another person about Wilson’s decision not to broadcast public comment.

Lane Street Project: response to the 23 July 2023 records request, part 4.

On a lighter note, this is an interesting one:

So, Rodger Lentz reads Black Wide-Awake! I love to see it.

The post he linked to is here. The book is Joan L. Howell’s Wilson County Cemeteries, Vol. V: The Two City-Owned African-American Cemeteries, containing alphabetical listings of 11,472 burials in Rest Haven cemetery and 650 presumed burials in “Rountree-Vick” cemetery.

As I’ve noted repeatedly, Volume 4 is a valuable resource. However, it perpetuates inaccuracies by conflating Rountree, Odd Fellows, and Vick Cemeteries — all separately owned — into a single “Rountree-Vick” Cemetery. Despite the engraving on the large granite pillars at the entrance to the parking lot, there is no such thing as Rountree-Vick Cemetery. The names listed as burials in Rountree-Vick are actually presumed burials in the three cemeteries. (A handful are actually in Rest Haven Cemetery.)

I’m glad City Hall has purchased a copy of Volume 4. And I hope the City will support our request to establish a digital database to track the names (and other vital stats information) of people likely buried in Vick Cemetery.

Lane Street Project: response to the 23 July 2023 records request, part 3.

On 4 June 2023, I posted views held at that time on a proposed fence around Vick Cemetery. As I had during my remarks at the open forum, I urged caution concerning the fence and invoked Rev. Carlton Best‘s reminder that we must not lose sight of Vick’s dead as plans are made to move forward.

Two days later, Wilson Communications Director Rebecca Agner reached out to New South Associates with an ask: “We would like NSA to mark the property where we can place the fence as a beginning step.” A series of emails followed in which Agner and NSA’s Sarah Lowry hashed out the scope of the additional work.

Why is it so hard for the City, which has a whole spokesperson, to keep the public informed about what is happening at Vick? What part of transparency and accountability is so hard to comprehend and/or comply with? Agner communicated with the Times about the City’s plans to bring NSA back, but not reaching out to private stakeholders seems to be an affirmative strategy. (In fact, in an email Agner sent Assistant City Manager Rodger Lentz on May 31 at 9:35 A.M., she made this clear: “The city hasn’t been officially responding to anything related to Vick except during public meetings.” Why not?)

Lane Street Project got wind of this when NSA returned to Vick on June 29 to mark anomalies on two sides of the cemetery. LSP observers watched the work and immediately noted that numerous graves lay on or outside Vick’s present-day property line. NSA’s little orange blocks and the map Lowry produced in August demonstrate how thickly graves lie along the boundaries. (And do not even take into account the unscanned graves in the right-of-way.)

So three months later, what is the City’s unrevealed plan for this fence?

Lane Street Project: response to the 23 July 2023 records request, part 2.

First, let me show you the public records request I submitted on 8 September 2023.

The request goes to my attempts to find out what happened to the headstones removed from Vick Cemetery circa 1995-96. My 2019 records request to the City yielded nothing helpful. The calls by me and others for an investigation into their disappearance has fallen on deaf ears. I’ve heard bits and pieces though. Second-hand and third-hand accounts of their removal and storage in a city warehouse, possibly near Maplewood Cemetery. A recent rumor describes the warehouse being damaged or flooded during a hurricane, perhaps Floyd, perhaps some other.

I screenshot this image from the Wilson County GIS website.

It shows the “city lot” adjacent to Maplewood. The superimposed blue shaded area is the “Flood Hazards” layer. There are faint outlines that appear to have been left by demolished buildings. Is this flood-vulnerable area where the headstones were stored? Or were they in some altogether different location?

My public records request is an attempt to determine where the headstones were and when and h0w they left the City’s custody. In the total absence of information from the folks charged with caring for these relics, I crafted my request in the broadest terms.

Here’s what City Manager Grant Goings had to say about that:

A few thoughts:

(1) No, Mr. Goings. Not “one individual.” I’m seeking the truth as a descendant of the dead of Vick Cemetery and a representative of everyone who wants to see a terrible wrong righted.

(2) In other words, we are too busy trying to get the Mudcats to come to Wilson to go on wild-goose chases for dusty documents related to embarrassing chapters in recent city history?

(3) “It is unfortunate that the law allows an individual to use up so many tax-payer resources and further harm the City by taking so many hours of staff time away from current opportunities.” North Carolina has had a Public Records Act since 1935. What’s “unfortunate” is that the highest-ranking administrative manager of the City of Wilson views as a nuisance a law fundamental to good governance and an informed public.

(4) “One (non-resident) attorney.” I was born and raised in Wilson. I don’t have to prove my bona fides to anybody at City Hall. Moreover, anyone may make a public records request.

(5)  I’ve responded to FOIA requests in my day. If we received one that seemed overly broad or vague or burdensome, we would contact the requestor to ask a few questions aimed at clarifying or narrowing the scope of the request. Simple as that. In fact, both the City Attorney and the City Clerk have reached out to me before concerning requests I’ve submitted. One time resulted in my withdrawal of the request. The second time resulted in a fine-tuning of the request to make more clear the information I was seeking. I have to assume that Grant Goings understands how public records requests work. Why he chooses to cavil and complain to council rather than contact me for clarity is a question only he can answer. As soon as I read his email, however — or, rather, as soon as I picked my jaw up off the floor — I emailed the City Attorney and others: “Mr. Cauley, given Mr. Goings’ concerns about my exercise of rights afforded under NC law, if there are questions about the scope of any request I submit, including that submitted on September 8, please let me know and I will do my best to clarify or even narrow said request.”

Lane Street Project: $50,000 mystery solved.

Much as I suspected, that $50,000 state appropriation for private Herring-Ellis Cemetery caught the City off-guard. Here’s how the Wilson Times described the exchange when State Representative Ken Fontenot appeared before council to tout state budget details:

A quick yes. Kudos to Mayor Carlton Stevens for nipping that stunt in the bud and securing authorization to devote the entire amount to Vick Cemetery, a historic city-owned burial ground. I look forward to discussions about how this generous appropriation can best be utilized.

Lane Street Project: a petition to council.

This is the petition delivered to city officials by Lane Street Project representatives during the  21 September 2023 City Council meeting. Since then, Mayor Carlton Stevens has reached out to one of the signatories to request a meeting. Details have not been confirmed, but we are hopeful.