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.
“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.”
In 1895, county commissioners took up “a matter of importance,” the issue of “providing a suitable burying ground for the colored people” (which suggests that the old burial ground was critically unsuitable.) The location of the “new” cemetery is memorialized in the name of Cemetery Street. It was variously called the colored cemetery, Oaklawn, Oakland and, most commonly, Oakdale cemetery.
Most of the burials below were gleaned from the records of undertakers Wootten & Stevens. Oakdale accepted burials until the 1920s, but is rarely designated on death certificates. Prior to World War II, those records most often referred to “colored cemetery,” which could have been Oakdale, Rountree, Odd Fellows, Masonic or Vick cemeteries.
Barham, Hattie. Wilson. Died 30 April 1898, aged 22 years, of consumption. Wife of Alex Barham. Church funeral and burial at Oak Dale cemetery.
Barron, Alex. Wilson. Died 22 March 1899, aged 30 years, of consumption. Funeral at house. Burial in Oak Dale cemetery.
Battle, Turner. Wilson. Died 16 January 1899, aged 46, shot to death. Burial in Oakdale cemetery.
Beckham, Junius. Wilson. Died 24 September 1898, aged 9 months, of pneumonia. Burial in Colored Cemetery.
Best, Edward. Wilson. Died 29 May 1898. Funeral at Church. Burial in Oak Dale cemetery.
Best, Sylvia. Wilson. Died 17 May 1897, aged 65 years, of consumption. Mother of Ben Best. Funeral at home. Burial in Oak Dale cemetery.
Boykin, [no first name]. Wilson County. Died 18 November 1896, aged 8 months. Child of John Boykin. Burial in Oak Dale cemetery.
Bullock, Gladiss. Wilson. Died 10 October 1897, of brain fever. Funeral at home. Burial at Oak Dale cemetery.
Bynum, Lucy. Wilson. Died 12 November 1898, aged 75 years, of old age. Mother of Wright George Cooper and Amos Bynum. Burial in Oakdale cemetery.
Campbell, Fanny. Near Wilson. Colored. Died 25 August 1897, of worms, aged 4 years, 8 months. Buried in Oak Wood cemetery.
Cherry, Flora. Died 11 September 1898. Funeral at church. Burial in Oakdale cemetery. “Flora Cherry was a member of the Burial Association and [was] buried by said Association.”
Clayton, Lucy. Died 23 September 1897, aged 1 month, 14 days. Burial in Oakdale cemetery.
Matthews, Tom. Wilson. Died 28 May 1899, age 37 years. Buried in colored cemetery. Billed to Town of Wilson. “Killed by Policeman George Mumford in the discharge of his duty. Coroner’s Inquest gave the above verdict.”
Mobley, Isaac. Wilson. Died 4 March 1899, age 21 years, of consumption. Buried in Oakdale cemetery.
Moore, ____. Wilson. Died 23 July 1898. Wife of Andrew Moore. Buried in colored cemetery.
Moore, ____. Wilson. Died 25 August 1898. Child of Henry Moore. Funeral in Methodist church. Buried in colored cemetery.
Moore, Lelia. Wilson. Died 6 February 1897, age 3 months, of a severe cold. Buried in Oak Dale cemetery. Billed to Bryant Moore.
Newkirk, Fenner. Wilson. Died 18 July 1897, age 28 years, of brain fever. Billed to Bettie Newkirk. Buried at Oak Dale Cemetery.
Parker, Stanley. Wilson. Died 2 August 1898, age 65, of old age. Funeral at home. Buried at Oak Dale cemetery.
Ransom, _____. Wilson. Died 19 February 1897 of “locked bowels.” “Was barber for long time.” Funeral at church. Buried in colored cemetery. Billed to Colored Odd Fellows. [Probably Hugh T. Ransom.]
Rogers, Marion L. Wilson. Died 26 April 1898, aged 5 months. Son of Wesley Rogers “who works with the American Tobacco Co.” Buried in colored cemetery.
Rowe, Annie Bill. Wilson. Died 16 August 1898, aged 3 months 16 days. “Child was left by her mother with Ben Parks and never came back.” Buried in old colored cemetery.
Sharp, _____. Rocky Mount. Died 14 January 1899. Daughter of Sampson Sharp. “Died at Rocky Mt. & was brought to Wilson for interment.” Burial in Oakdale cemetery.
Sharp, Nellie. Wilson township. Colored. Died 20 December 1897, aged 58 years. Buried in Oak Dale cemetery. Billed to Wilson Sharp.
Simms, _____. Wilson. Died 9 May 1898, of pneumonia. “Simms was a young man who had the misfortune to get both feet cut off by a R.R. train.” Buried in Oak Dale Cemetery. Billed to Lee Moore.
Stallings, Mary. Wilson. Died 15 June 1898, deranged, aged 20 years, 19 days. Funeral at home. Buried in “old section” of Oakdale cemetery. Billed to Gilbert Stallings.
Strickland, _____. Wilson. Died 8 June 1899. Wife of Marcellus Strickland. Buried in colored cemetery.
Sugg, _____. Wilson. Died 4 April 1898, age 22, of fever. Billed to Haywood Best. Buried in Oakdale cemetery.
Sutton, William R. Wilson. Colored. Died 4 August 1897, aged 6 months. Child of Aider Sutton. Funeral at church. Burial in old cemetery.
Thompson, Arthur. Wilson. Colored. Died 12 May 1897, of cold and measles, aged 1 year 3 months. Son of Isaac Thompson. Buried in Oak Dale cemetery.
Thorp, _____. Colored. Died 27 February 1897. Length 2’6″. Buried in colored cemetery. Billed to Edith Thorp.
Towe, _____. Wilson. Colored. Died 23 April 1899. Child of George W. Towe. Buried in colored cemetery.
Towe, Maggie I. Wilson. Colored. Died 15 April 1899, aged 39 years 4 months 18 days, in childbirth. Wife of Prof. G.W. Towe, a “teacher in the Col. Graded School.” Funeral in Methodist Church. Burial in colored cemetery. [Maggie Towe’s grave was moved to Rest Haven, where her headstone now stands.]
Vick, Viola Leroy. Wilson. Colored. Died 7 September 1897, of malarial fever, aged 2 years 10 months. Daughter of S.H. Vick. Buried in colored cemetery. [Viola Vick’s headstone was recently discovered in Odd Fellows cemetery in the Vick family plot. She was likely disinterred and reburied to that location.]
Wilkins, Mary. Wilson. Colored. Died 27 March 1899, age 43, of “internal tumor.” “Mary was wife of Redmond Wilkins, was in bad health for a long time, was a good woman.” Billed to Col. Mason. Buried in colored cemetery.
Green Mercer died 17 January 1910 at the Wilson County Home, which housed indigent people. Mercer, who was married and whose regular address was on Church Street, had been in “general bad health” for several months. Though just 69, he was described as a “very old negro” for whom no family information was available. Undertaker John W. Quinn buried Mercer in the “Wilson N.C. Colored Cemetery.”
But which colored cemetery?
By 1910, there were four in Wilson — Odd Fellows, Rountree, Masonic and the “old” cemetery, sometimes called Oaklawn or Oakdale, which was established after Emancipation near Cemetery Street south of downtown. The Odd Fellows and Masonic cemeteries seem to have been restricted to burials of lodge members and their families, and Rountree was probably intended originally for Rountree Missionary Baptist church members. (The land now known as Vick cemetery was still an undeveloped tract owned by Samuel H. Vick in 1910.)
On 24 August 1866, Green Mercer obtained a license to marry Margarett Wilkins in Edgecombe County.
In the 1870 census of Cokey township, Edgecombe County: farm laborer Green Mercer, 27; wife Margaret, 27; children Fanny, 3, Major Totten, 1, and Frederick Cotton, 54, Randal Parker, and Louisa Ruffin, 21.
In the 1880 census of Cocoa township, Edgecombe County: farmer Green Mercer, 42; wife Margarett, 37; and children Reden, 15, Fannie, 14, Tatin, 11, William, 8, and Joseph, 3.
In the 1900 census of Wilson, Wilson County, Green Mercer, 50, widower, is listed as a servant in the household of Arthur Farmer, 73.
This 1925 Daily Times article detailed the business of a single February city aldermen’s meeting. First on the agenda, the Wilson Colored Hospital. The article listed the white members of the hospital’s board of trustees first, then noted its African-American members —S.H. Vick, J.D. Reid and “Permillus” [Camillus] Darden. After some discussion, the “the Board” decided to reinstate the city’s $75/month appropriation to the hospital, which had been discontinued the previous September.
The trustees stated that the hospital was “a necessity among the colored people of the city, and that many of them would be without treatment but for the institution.” Alderman Daniel asked if the trustees had personal knowledge that “the affairs of the institution were properly administered.” Dr. C.A. Woodard responded that “no institution of this kind made any money, and that they understood the disadvantages under which those connected with it were laboring.” Hospital management agreed to file monthly reports to the city. Trustee F.N. Bridgers invited the city to appoint a member to the board, and J.D. Reid noted that alderman Graham Woodard had been asked. Woodard acknowledged the invitation, but cited a busy schedule.
Hospital business satisfactorily concluded, Vick broached another subject — street lights. Would “the city extend its Whiteway below the railroad to the Baptist church, at the corner of Nash and Pender Streets”? A lighted north side and dark south did not present a good look to voyagers passing through on trains. The aldermen referred the matter to the Water and Light Commission. The Business Men’s League and the J.C. Price Literary Society endorsed the project, Vick added. (Joseph C. Price “taught here fifty years ago and afterwards founded Livingstone College.”) Mayor Lucas raised another point: lighting would help the police do their job. One had been killed and another nearly so in “pistol duels in that section of the city.”
Vick raised item number three — the colored cemetery. Would the city place an awning and also fix the roads so people could get in and out? Mr. Grantham of the cemetery commission responded defensively: “it was difficult to get the cemetery into a correct shape, and lay it out. The graves had been placed everywhere, and without regard to lines or streets.” Also, “there was some of the land that was worthless for the purpose, as it was a bottom. He spoke of land in the old cemetery which if the graves were removed would be worth considerable money.” Anyway, he agreed to “go over the property and work out some plan to get it in shape.”
No further colored business.
Wilson Daily Times, 10 February 1925.
Why had the city discontinued its $75/month allocation in the first place?
What did the J.C. Price Literary Society do? When was it founded? Who were its members?
When did streetlights finally cross the tracks?
For what purpose was an awning needed in the cemetery?
“Fix the roads“? What roads led to the cemetery?
Were there still burials in Oakdale as late as 1925? Was the question more of access to existing graves than for new ones?