Late local historian Hugh B. Johnston Jr.’s file contain this note, apparently copied from volumes of city commissioners or boards of aldermen meetings that cannot now be located:
“Dec. 17, 1888 Oakview Cemetery. Gray Farmer, [illegible] Robinson, and Washington Sugg were appt. a Committee to look for a burial ground for the colored people.”
This is the earliest reference to a public African-American cemetery in Wilson and appears to presage the establishment of Oakdale (also called Oaklawn, Oakland, Oakwood, and Oakview) Cemetery in the area of present-day Cemetery Street south to the former Elvie Street School. Sugg (or Suggs) owned extensive property in the area, and the deed for his first land purchase refers to a preexisting “graveyard lot” near his property. This lot may have been developed into a city cemetery.
However, an 1895 Wilson Daily Times article mentions that county commissioners had begun to search for a “suitable burying ground for the colored people.” What had happened (or not happened) in the previous seven years?
On 28 June 1901, Wilson’s Board of Commissioners enacted town ordinances, including IX, which governed cemeteries. Twelve years later, the city abandoned African-American Oakdale Cemetery in favor of Vick Cemetery, which in turn it proceeded to neglect.
Section 1 — That any person making an interment in the Town other than in Maplewood or Oakdale Cemeteries should be subject to a fine of Ten Dollars.
Section 2 — That any one injuring or defacing the inclosures around Maplewood or Oakdale Cemeteries, or tombstones, or plucking the flowers shrubbery therein or in any Church yard, should be subject to a fine of Five Dollars.
Section 3 — That any person riding or driving a horse or vehicle within the Cemeteries faster than a walk should be subject to a fine of Five Dollars.
Section 4 — That the use of the avenues in the Cemeteries as public thoroughfares is hereby prohibited, under a penalty of Two Dollars for each offense.
Section 5 — That no dead body should be exhumed in the Cemeteries except by permission of the Mayor, under a penalty of Ten Dollars.
Section 6 — That it should be the duty of the Keeper of Cemeteries to keep all lots clean, keep all graves filled when caved and in good condition.
Section 7 — That the Keeper of Maplewood Cemetery should be and is hereby invested with full Police power and is denominated Cemetery Policeman.
Section 8 — That no Cemetery lots should be sold except for cash.
In this odd series of events, the “negro cemetery” appears to be the old Oakdale cemetery, located west of Stantonsburg Street (now Pender) and by 1932 abandoned.
Frank Austin — in the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 318 South Lodge Street, Alas Austin, 65; son George Austin, 45; and grandchildren Pattie B., 20, Earnest, 19, Rose M., 17, Lorrine, 13, Katie B., 12, Virginia, 11, and Leroy Barnes, 10, and Frank Austin, 23. [The Barnes children were surely the children of India Alston Barnes, who was shot to death by their father Tip Barnes in 1921.]
As noted here, I have long been intrigued by the disappearance (in space and memory) of Wilson’s first African-American cemetery, sometimes called Oaklawn or Oakland or Oakdale. The precise location of the first city-owned black cemetery is a mystery, though most people believe (and as I conjectured here) it was above Cemetery Street where Whitfield Homes are now situated.
No official records related to the cemetery survive, and no plat map delineates its complete boundaries. However, I’ve found one reference to the “colored cemetery” on a 1923 plat map of “The D.C. Sugg Property Located on Stantonsburg Road and Lincoln Avenue.” Using a 1937 aerial photograph of the area (the graves in the cemetery were disinterred in the early 1940s), plus the plat, I’ve come up with a revised location estimate.
Here’s the plat map, with modern street names noted and the area marked “Colored Cemetery” emphasized:
Plat Book 1, page 215 (annotated), Register of Deeds Office, Wilson.
Wilson disinterred the (known) graves at Oakdale in 1941. Accordingly, I searched the 1937 aerial photograph of this area, below. The street at left is Railroad Street. Manchester Street is at far right, and parallel to it was then Stantonsburg Street. (North of Cemetery, it is now Pender Street. The lower section is now Black Creek Road.)The red-dashed lines mark current streets, including Pender, New, Nora, and Blount. The blue-dashed line is Nora St. as it appears on the 1923 plat map above. The green marks the borders of the colored cemetery above. (I have added a northern border though none is shown on the plat map.)
If my mark-up is correct, the cemetery (or, at least, its southern extension) was south of Cemetery Street near the site now occupied by Daniels Learning Center (the former Elvie Street School.)
I ran the mark-up by Will Corbett, GIS Coordinator, Wilson County Technology Services Department, for an opinion on my conjecture. He agreed and returned this graphic:
Bingo. The blue-shaded area is the “colored cemetery” overlaid on a current map of the neighborhood. This image reveals that the cemetery covered what is now a row of houses fronting on New Street, as well nearly the entirety of the lawn and semi-circular driveway in front of Daniels/Elvie school.
Was this cemetery marked on Sanborn fire insurance maps? It is not on the 1922 map, the last one for which I have access.
The maps corresponding to the sections marked 25 and 29 show houses along Railroad, Suggs and Stantonsburg Streets, and a few along the north side of East Contentnea (now Cemetery) Street. However, south of East Contentnea, the space is blank but for subsection numbers 225 and 256, and no corresponding maps were made. Though it is not marked, Oakdale cemetery was located in this space.
With the information above, I revisited a plat map the city filed in 1942. I initially had difficulty interpreting “The Town of Wilson Property on Cemetery Street,” but I now see it is oriented south to north. Turn it upside down, and the outline of the old colored cemetery clearly emerges. As I suspected, the city had owned the section between present-day New and Cemetery Streets as well as the inverted L below New, and it is likely that there were also burials in this space.
Plat book 3, page 150, Register of Deeds Office, Wilson.
This is a plat map, labeled “The Town of Wilson Property on Cemetery Street,” showing the subdivision of a parcel of land into 79 lots and several blocks of unnamed streets. I do not have access to the deed recording the city’s purchase of this tract. Moreover, the exact location of this tract today is difficult to determine. However, the date of map — October 1942, eleven months after the exhumation of graves from Oakdale cemetery — suggests to me that this is the cemetery land that the city “condemned … to build several roads through it.”
Here’s my most recent request for public records, made 25 February 2020 to the Wilson Cemetery Commission:
Under the North Carolina Public Records Law, G.S. §132-1, I am requesting an opportunity to inspect or obtain copies of the following public records related to the Old Negro Cemetery (also known as the colored cemetery, Oakdale or Oaklawn Cemetery) and Rest Haven Cemetery:
Any and all documents showing the identity of persons buried in the Old Negro Cemetery during the period of its active existence
Any and all documents related to the Old Negro Cemetery
Any and documents showing the identity of persons whose graves were moved from the Old Negro Cemetery to Rest Haven Cemetery in or before 1941
Any and all documents, including but not limited to maps, plats, surveys and photographs, showing the location of graves and grave markers in the Old Negro Cemetery at the time the City of Wilson or the Cemetery Commission moved graves from the Old Negro Cemetery to Rest Haven Cemetery in 1941
Any and all documents, including but not limited to maps, plats, surveys and photographs, showing the relocation of graves and grave markers to Rest Haven Cemetery from the Old Negro Cemetery in 1941
Oakdale was the cemetery located near present-day Cemetery Street. The request was spurred by this article.
The reply? The Cemetery Commission has no documents responsive to this request.
Between 1865 and 1975, African-Americans in the town of Wilson buried their dead in at least eight cemeteries — two in the area of present-day Cemetery Street and six along what is now Lane Street. From 1895 to about 1925, five of the cemeteries operated simultaneously. They often were referred to collectively and interchangeably as “the colored cemetery.” Similarly, the three cemeteries on the eastern end of Lane Street are colloquially known collectively as “Rountree cemetery,” though Rountree is but one of the three. I’ve created this timeline to better understand the arcs of their usage, which, at this point, are baffling.
1870 — Washington Suggs purchased a lot adjacent to “the grave yard lot” and the African church. Suggs’ land was south of downtown between the railroad and what is now Pender Street. [Was this an African-American cemetery? If so, when was it established? If not, where were mid-nineteenth century black folk buried? It seems to have been located in the same general area as the later Oakdale cemetery.]
1895 — Per the 4 July Wilson Daily Times, the county commissioners took up the question of a “suitable burying ground for the colored people.” [Was there none? Or was it that the old one had been “unsuitable”?]
1897-1899 — The Funeral Register of Wootten and Stevens, Undertakers of Wilson, North Carolina, November 18, 1896-June 27, included burials of African-Americans, dozens of whom were interred in Oakdale (in one instance, called Oakwood) and generically labeled “colored” cemeteries, as well many rural graveyards.
1897 — Trustees of Rountree Missionary Baptist Church bought one acre of land “beginning at a stake on the path leading from the Plank road to the Stantonsburg road where a small branch crosses said path.” [This appears to be the half of Rountree cemetery that lies on the northwest-side of present-day Lane Street. The widening of the street for paving in the 1990s reduced the size of this lot.]
1896 — Rev. Owen L.W. Smith purchased from the Town of Wilson, in the person of Mayor John F. Bruton, lot 7, F Street, Section North, of Oakdale Cemetery (col’d). [This is the only evidence I have found of a formal layout for Oakdale.]
1897 — As reported in the 1 October 1897 issue of Wilson Daily Times, the Town of Wilson “paid on the account of Oakdale Cemetery 49.20.”
1910 — On July 15, the Daily Times reported Henry Hagans‘ escape through the colored cemetery [Oakdale/Oaklawn] after shooting a woman.
1911 — On December 12, the Daily Times reported two commissioners had been appointed to investigate complaints about drainage problems at the colored cemetery. [This would have been Oakdale/Oaklawn.]
1912 — The Wilson city directory listed Oaklawn cemetery (colored) on Cemetery Road near the Atlantic Coast Line Railway, Blount Moore, keeper.
1913 — The town of Wilson purchased 7.84 acres from Samuel and Annie Vick adjacent to the “colored Odd Fellows cemetery track.” [Presumably, after less than 20 years, Oakdale/Oaklawn was not only experiencing serious drainage issues, it also was crowded and becoming hemmed in by residential expansion.]
1916 — The Wilson city directory listed Oaklawn cemetery (colored) on Cemetery Road near the Atlantic Coast Line Railway.
1922 — The Wilson city directory listed Oaklawn cemetery (colored) on Cemetery Road near the Atlantic Coast Line Railway.
1925 — The Wilson city directory listed Oaklawn cemetery (colored) on Cemetery Road near the Atlantic Coast Line Railway. The Business Directory section lists only Maplewood under the “Cemeteries” heading.
1925 — A soil survey of Wilson County shows the Masonic cemetery and a combined Odd Fellows/Vick cemetery, but not Oakdale.
1925 — Per an article published in the Daily Times on February 10, Samuel H. Vick requested that city board of aldermen provide an awning for the colored cemetery [likely, Vick] and repair roads leading to it. An alderman noted that the “old cemetery” [Oakdale] was on valuable land.
1925 — Per notice published in the Daily Times on December 2, a trustee offered for sale a lot owned by Nathan Hines south of Suggs Street “beginning at a corner near a ditch on the South East corner of the colored cemetery on Sugg Street.” [Suggs Street runs parallel to and a block north of Cemetery Street.]
1927 — Per notice published in the Daily Times on July 16, a trustee offered for sale six acres owned by D.C. Suggs and wife, north of Contentnea Street [Cemetery Street, see below] and adjoining the Calvin Blount land on the west, John Ratley and S.H. Vick on the east, and the colored cemetery and A.S. Woodard on the north.
1928 — Oaklawn is no longer listed in the Wilson city directory, and no “colored” cemetery is listed under the heading in the Business Directory section.
1930 — Oaklawn is not listed in the Wilson city directory, and no “colored” cemetery is listed under the heading in the Business Directory section.
1932 — In a notice of sale published on March 31 in the Daily Times, a lot is described as beginning at the corner of S.H. Vick and Dollison Powell‘s land on “the colored Masonic Cemetery road.”
1937 — Per letter and article published on September 24 and 30 by the Daily Times, Camillus L. Darden and others requested paving of the road leading to the “negro cemetery.” [This is most likely a reference to Vick cemetery.]
1940 — On August 30, the city manager published in the Daily Times a notice of removal of graves from the abandoned cemetery on Cemetery Street, in which there had been no burials in 16 years, to “the new cemetery for the colored race, situated near the Town of Wilson, N.C., and known as Resthaven cemetery.”
1941 — Cemetery Street had been called Contentnea Street as far back as 1922 (see above), but the change apparently was not made official until graves were moved from Oakdale to Rest Haven. The change did not take; Cemetery Street was so-called in both the 1941 and 1947 city directories and still is today.
Wilson Daily Times, 7 November 1941.
1949 — On November 7, the Daily Times reported a dispute between Harry Howell and Carl Ward, who each purchased the same plot in the colored cemetery in 1934. Howell had recently requested that the cemetery commission remove Ward’s wife from the lot and place her body in another. [This dispute likely involved Vick cemetery, but maybe Rest Haven.]
1953 — On January 8, the Daily Times reported that farmer J.J. Skinner found a stolen safe “at the old colored cemetery just outside Wilson.” Skinner, who lived nearby, had cut through the cemetery on the way to his fields. [This was likely Rountree/Odd Fellows/Vick cemeteries.]
1989 — On 18 February, the Daily Times ran a full-length feature article on Ben Mincey‘s attempts to maintain Odd Fellows cemetery.
1990-1991 — The city cleared Vick cemetery with a bush hog and began public discussions about clean-up and maintenance.
1994-1996 — As detailed here and here, the city cleared Vick cemetery of gravemarkers, graded and seeded the site, and erected a single monument commemorating all buried there.
2015 — Wilson County Genealogical Society published 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 burials in “Rountree-Vick” cemetery. The latter were largely derived from death certificates issued in the 1940s to 1960s. Though an admirable and worthwhile effort, the Rountree-Vick list is a vast undercount and does not accurately reflect actual burial locations, as individuals may have been buried in Rountree, Odd Fellows, or Vick.
2020 — In response to Public Records Law request, the city of Wilson confirms that it cannot produce any record of the identities of those whose grave markers it removed from Vick cemetery or provide any documentation of the decision to destroy those markers.
“the town had condemned the land to build several roads through it” — No mention of poor drainage conditions in the cemetery. Rather, a suggestion that the unnamed city alderman’s 1925 comment about the cemetery occupying valuable land had gained traction.
“the old negro Wilson cemetery over near Stantonsburg street” — Stantonsburg Street (now the lower section of Pender Street) ran just east of the cemetery.
“Dozens of graves” were moved to “the newer Rest Haven cemetery” — There were surely hundreds of people, not dozens, buried in Oakdale. Were unmarked graves left behind? Does the Cemetery Commission have records of this disinterment and reburial in Rest Haven?
“Most recent grave in the old cemetery that could be found was dated 1902” — This can only be true if they were not looking hard. The notice of removal of graves, published in 1940, stated that the last burials were in 1924.
“the cemetery is at least 50 years old.” — This roughly corroborates the founding of Oakdale as 1895, when county commissioners took up the question of a “suitable burying ground for the colored people.”