Public Records Law

Cemetery records request update, no. 6: the removal of graves from Oakdale cemetery.

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.

Lane Street Project: cemetery records request update, no. 5, the city’s response.

I have received the city’s response to my request for documents related to the removal and destruction of headstones from Vick cemetery, made under North Carolina’s Public Records Law.

My initial request to the Wilson Cemetery Commission was made 6 September 2019. (Thanks again to Heather Goff for her quick response.)

I followed up with letters to several city officials in October and November. The city clerk responded quickly to my first letter, providing copies of relevant city council minutes from 1990 to 1995. The city manager and city engineer did not respond at all, even to acknowledge receipt of my request.

On 30 December 2019, I sent a letter to the mayor of Wilson, the city manager, and all seven council members setting forth my concerns and my unanswered requests for information about Rountree, Odd Fellows and Vick cemeteries. At the behest of the city’s new mayor, Carlton Stevens, and council, city attorney James Cauley assumed responsibility for the search for responsive documents. I commend Mr. Cauley for his periodic updates on the status of the city’s response and for his candor concerning the paucity of records.

Here, in their entirety, are the documents I received.

(1) Purchase Order, dated 10 November 1994, for services by vendor PLT Construction, described in “Bid for improvements to S.H. Vick Cemetery.” The document’s right edge is cut off, but the amount the city paid was more than $139,000.

(2) A request for payment of balance due submitted by PLT Construction to the City of Wilson on 5 June 1995. Note the change item: “deduct for replacing headstones and portion of survey work.” PLT did not perform this work and thus credited the city $4500.

 

(3) A 21 June 1995 invoice for the amount set forth in PLT’s letter above.

(4) Page 1 of a project description entitled “Restoration and Improvement S.H. Vick Cemetery Lane St. Wilson, N.C.” Section 4A of this document is particularly interesting: “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.” As we know, the grave markers were not relocated to the cemetery. They were stored for an indeterminate period of time, then destroyed.

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(5) Page 2 of a project description entitled “Restoration and Improvement S.H. Vick Cemetery Lane St. Wilson, N.C.” See particularly, Section E: “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.”

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(6) A plat map of the cemetery and surrounding properties, including Odd Fellows cemetery.

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(7) Another plat map prepared by F.T. Green and Associates [now Green Engineering]. Under the label “Odd Fellows Cemetery” is this note: “No deed on record. See D.B. 81, p. 196.”

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(8) This map, also prepared by F.T. Green, reveals with terrible clarity the reality of the smooth field that is now Vick cemetery. This map shows the location of every grave found on the site. You have to imagine the boundaries: Lane Street the top, woods to the right (concealing Odd Fellows cemetery) and bottom. The clear strip bisecting the map likely indicates an access lane. Contrary to claims made by public officials in the 1990s, Vick cemetery was laid out quite regularly. Graves were oriented parallel to the road (roughly northeast to southwest) in rows running perpendicular.

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Please look more closely. The resolution is awful, but these — hundreds, thousands of? — little marks are not just marks. They are numbers. Each grave was numbered as it surveyed, and the city cannot locate its copy of the key to these numbers. Nor, apparently, can Green Engineering.

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The takeaway: the city (or its contractors) surveyed and assigned each grave a number; prepared a map of those graves; removed the gravestones; graded the site; stored, then destroyed the gravestones; and lost the key that identified any of the graves that could be identified. 

I need to sit with this for a minute to process my sadness and anger and profound disappointment in the city’s handling of the “restoration and improvement” of a public cemetery founded during the darkest days of segregation and neglected through and after its fifty years as an active burial ground. The graves of the thousands of African-Americans buried in Vick cemetery remain in situ, the names of their dead lost.

Vick Cemetery, Christmas Eve 2019. 

Lane Street Project: cemetery records request update no. 2, the search for Rountree’s lost gravestones.

Round 2 in the quest to locate the gravestones removed from Rountree Cemetery in 1995 included letters sent on October 2 and 3 to the City Manager, the City Clerk, the City Engineer, and PLT Construction, the company who cleared the property.

I received a response via email today from the City Clerk. It was disappointing. (Though I appreciate her prompt attention.) She attached copies of all “the information the City has in its records for Roundtree [sic] Cemetery,” which consists of passages in a handful of city council minutes between 1990 and 1995. The City, apparently, has not retained a copy of the survey or other record of grave locations at Rountree. Nor, it seems, was there any official discussion of the storage and/or disposal of the surviving gravestones in 1995 or any time since.

The most interesting (if not enlightening) discussions about the cemetery occurred in the minutes of 2 June and 25 July 1994.

On 2 June, in pertinent part:

“The mayor [Bruce Rose] called on the audience for anyone wishing to address Council, and recognized former mayor Ralph El Ramey, 904 West Lee Street. … Mr. El Ramey said $200,000 for the restoration of the Vick cemetery, and he was certainly in favor of getting it in first class shape, seemed to be an exorbitant amount of money; and he would like to make an offer that the City give him $100,000 and he would get it cleaned up.”

“Councilmember [Gwendolyn] Burton stated that Earl Bradbury was on the Cemetery Commission at the time when Council and he argued back and forth about the ownership of the Vick cemetery; and it was concurred at that time the City did in fact own the cemetery. She reminded Mr. El Ramey that he and she were serving on Council when the bids came in at $276,000 for the restoration of that cemetery; and that, at Council’s direction, staff sprayed herbicides to reduce potential restoration costs.”

“Mr. El Ramey asked whether convicted people with community service time could be used to clean up the cemetery.”

“Deputy City Manager [Charles W.] Pittman said $200,000 was an estimate based on a more recent proposal; that $168,000 was the low bid about three and one-half years ago; that it was a lot more involved than just going in and clearing eight acres of grass and covering it with grass; that the graves should be properly marked; that certain rights goes along with cemeteries; the City must ensure those rights are protected; and that bids received must be brought back to Council for action.”

“Councilmember [C. Jerry] Williams said some of the cost for the restoration of the Vick cemetery involved work without the use of heavy equipment which might disturb the graves, and making sure headstones and markings are placed/replaced in their correct locations. He noted the actual cutting of trees and mowing of grass is only part of the entire process, and it was hard to find people who are interested in taking the project.”

“Councilmember [Avant P.] Coleman questioned when the Vick Cemetery was acquired by the City. The City Manager indicated it was in the early 1900s. Councilmember Coleman should be committed to fulfilling its obligations to all cemeteries; Council should consider what it would have cost if it had been maintained since its acquisition; that a lot of money was saved by forgetting the City owned it; and the City should be concerned about it and proud of all its cemeteries.”

On 25 July:

Vick Cemetery Restoration. Councilmember [Steven A.] Stancil said he would like to restore the cemetery, but that Council allow staff to look at it and only use $50,000 this year by using the unemployed for manual labor the first year.”

“Councilmember Coleman stated Council should not limit the staff to $50,000; that it would have cost the City a lot more money if the City had acknowledged the fact that it owned the cemetery and had maintained it all these years; and that it was a disgrace to not have restored it sooner.”

“Deputy City Manager Pittman stressed the importance of the work that needed to be done; that a responsible person or persons be employed to locate and properly mark the graves; that staff had no intentions of spending any more money than necessary to properly restore the cemetery; that it would be difficult to find someone willing to volunteer to do the work; and that, because of the scope of the work involved, it was necessary to request and receive bids before the City could give Council a cost figure. He said the $200,000 appropriated in the budget was an estimated based on bids received several years ago, which was in the vicinity of $190,000 to $200,000.”

And finally, on 3 November 1994, City Council awarded the job to PLT Construction:

“Councilmember [Robert L.] Thaxton moved that the bid be awarded to PLT Construction Company, low bidder meeting specifications, for the total project cost of $139,750. He stated that a lot of people do not know what is going on with the Vick Cemetery; that this is an old cemetery which was deeded to the city many years ago; and that plans are underway to improve this cemetery so that it can be maintained in the future. Motion was seconded by Councilmember Burton.”

“The City Manager said $200,000 was budgeted for this project; that he was pleased to see bids come in under the budgeted amount; that the next low bid was $48,750 higher than PLT’s; and that city staff is satisfied the contractor will do what is required to bring the Vick Cemetery up to par.”

“Councilmember [James M.] Johnson said that he had a problem with relatives letting their families’ graves being left in as shoddy a condition as they are now; that he was in favor of getting the Vick Cemetery improved, but, morally, he was going to vote against it, as a message to those family members who had loved ones buried there.”

“Councilmember Burton stated several family members did come before City Council and begged and pleaded for 15 years or more that the city restore and maintain the cemetery; that a man tried to maintain it by himself but could not continue to do so; and that the city was asked repeatedly to do something about its condition.”

“The mayor called for a vote on the motion to award the bid to PLT Construction Company for the restoration of the S.H. Vick Cemetery. Councilmembers Burton, [Willie J.] Pitt, Thaxton and Williams voted aye. Councilmembers Johnson and Stancil voted nay. The motion carried by a vote of four to two.”

And that, pretty much, was it.

I await, with low expectations, responses from the City Manager and City Engineer. In the meantime, it’s on to phase 3, in which I contact elected city officials in office during and since the 1990s concerning their recollections of the storage and/or disposal of the cemetery’s headstones.

Lane Street Project: cemetery records request update, no. 1.

The first net thrown, unfortunately, has come up empty.

I am on a quest to find out what happened to the gravestones removed from Rountree cemetery [update: the correct name is Vick cemetery] when it was cleared in 1995. Wilson Cemetery Commission’s Heather Goff called me today in response to the letter below. Ms. Goff, hired long after Vick was cleared, has no personal knowledge of the whereabouts of the stones and could find no records among the Commission’s holdings. (In response to the first paragraph of the request, she generously offered to furnish a copy of Joan Howell’s Wilson County Cemeteries, Volume V: Rest Haven and Rountree/ Vick Cemetery, but I already have it.) I appreciate her prompt response.

So, it’s on to the next round of public records request letters, which will be addressed to the current City Manager, City Clerk and City Engineer.