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.