Public Records Law

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: 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: response to the 23 July 2023 records request, part 1.

Yesterday, I received 961 pages in response to my 23 July 2023 public records request. Some of documents duplicate information already in my possession, such the final GPR report. Other pages duplicate one another, as various email threads are forwarded or responded to by multiple City employees and elected officials. In a series of posts, I’ll share the documents I consider most informative, both substantively and in terms of what they reveal about the City of Wilson’s collective approach to dealing with Vick Cemetery (and me).

First, the request itself. With (1), I sought documents that would explain New South Associates’ specific reasons for returning in June to mark the edges of Vick. With (2), the scope of the survey work Bartlett was contracted to perform. With (3), in the absence of any communication from the City, I sought documents revealing any plans for work at Vick. With (4), again in the vacuum created by the City’s lack of responsiveness, I sought documents that would show whether they were speaking with subject matter experts about Vick. With (5), I sought to ascertain whether the City was communicating with anyone in the descendant community.

Let me cue up the first exhibit. After the May 11 Vick Cemetery open forum, Councilmember Gillettia Morgan and Mayor Carlton Stevens asked me to send them some quick-hit items they could take to council quickly. I sent this email on May 24. (The highlights were later added by someone to whom the email was forwarded.)

On June 16, after learning the City had not and would not obtain a survey map be provided for the survey I’d requested, I sent Morgan and Stevens this email (highlights added by someone else):

Neither Morgan nor Stevens responded to me. Rather, one of them forwarded the email to City Manager Grant Goings. Goings forwarded both my emails to the mayor and council with this message:

Let’s break this down:

  • “Several have complained ‘goalposts being constantly moved’ on Vick Cemetery and some have concluded that true resolution is not goal of all parties.” 

Goings wrote this email on June 16, less than two months after the City turned over the Vick Cemetery GPR report it had been sitting on for more than six months. It’s not clear who “several” are. Councilmembers? City officials? More critically, how could the goalposts be moved when we have no idea where they should be set? We learned only in April of the approximate number of graves in Vick. Only two of seven council members came to the open forum convened for discussion of the report. City officials do not respond to emails about Vick. They do not ask questions. They don’t share information. The City has yet to propose any kind of “resolution,” much less a true one, for Vick’s future. Instead, city representatives talk behind their hands and accuse Vick descendants of acting in bad faith.

  • “Please read the two emails below. The first email request [sic] that the 4 corners of the cemetery be surveyed. The second email blasts the City and claims we are doing things ‘on the cheap’ and ‘behind closed doors’, for doing exactly what was requested in the first email. Intentionally moving goalposts to continue conflict is not anything new. It is a tactic used frequently in politics by all kinds of groups. However, it is rare to actually catch proof in writing like we have below.”

First, on 30 December 2019, in my first letter to mayor and council, among other things I stated: “For clarification of the boundaries of Vick cemetery and the Rountree and Odd Fellows cemeteries adjacent to it, I request a plat map of the property.” So, actually, I’ve been quite consistent on this point. However, Goings is correct that my May 24 email was inartfully worded. In my experience, getting a survey to determine the boundaries of a parcel of land results in a survey map that shows rights-of-way, property lines, surface features, etc. It never occurred to me that the City would ask the surveyor to do no more than place stakes. Hence my June 16 email to Morgan and Stevens asking for clarity — an email that Goings and the anonymous “several” see as a smoking gun of bad intent.

Since 2019, when I began asking questions about Vick, the City’s posture has been defensive, rather than engaging. My persistent attempts to get to the truth about Vick have required that I grope about in the dark because the City will shine no light on the subject without compulsion. I’m puzzled that Grant characterizes my requests for information and action as “political.” I’m not a representative or agent of the political body that pulled headstones out of the ground, lost or destroyed them, and ran power poles through two cemeteries. I have no motive to “continue conflict,” but I know who might.

  • “I’m not sure where ‘once again the City is trying to deal with Vick on the cheap’ comes from. My recollection is that Council spent over triple what was originally requested for the radar scan. You also have instructed us to find attractive, and more expensive, fencing options, etc.”

Goings isn’t sure because he hasn’t asked. Let me refresh his recollection re the GPR scan. When the mayor first raised this issue to council, a Cemetery Commission employee hazarded a guess about the cost. When the City actually got a quote from industry leader New South Associates, the cost was much higher. After some grumbling among council members, they agreed to pay it. As for the attractive, expensive fencing options, Goings is once again missing the point. Maybe the fence is workable option. Maybe it’s not. But before we talk about pretty fences, we need to talk about these power poles. And the unscanned graves in the public right-of-way. And other matters that more likely than not will cost money. (Money that doesn’t have to come from local taxpayers, by the way. Other cities and organizations are getting tens of thousands of dollars in grants or other funding for historic African-American cemeteries. You know why? Because they’re actively seeking it.)

  • “Considering the numerous false allegations to date, the evidence below, and the fact that Ms. Henderson has publicly and in writing falsely accused your Communications Director, Assistant City Manager, City Engineer, and City Manager of being untruthful and/or unethical, I think it would be wise for the City to establish alternative communication relationships to represent Vick’s best interests. In no means do I wish to diminish the valuable research Ms. Henderson has contributed or the volunteer efforts she leads to clean up the private cemeteries. I do not know her nor intend to judge or defame her as she has done to staff. However, the City relying on her as the ‘voice’ of the public on this issue is appearing to be, at best, a questionable practice…”

The first part apparently is reference to my comments here. While strongly critical of certain actions taken by public officials, my remarks are in no way defamatory. I suggest Goings brush up on the First Amendment. This paragraph does get at the heart of things though. Goings (and perhaps the “several”) don’t like my style. They apparently don’t like my refusal to shut up or back down. I get it. No one wants to dwell on destroyed headstones and power poles in cemeteries, and I’m sure it would be easier to deal with someone compliant and undemanding. But Grant Goings doesn’t get to decide who represents “Vick’s best interests” or who acts as the “voice of the public” concerning this sacred space. (Thanks for the compliment though.)

Four days later, Councilman Michael Bell responded to Goings:

Bell repeats the moving goalposts charge and makes a startling suggestion. “… [W]e need to establish if the additional graves are within or out of the surveyed boundary. If the additional graves are within the surveyed boundary then if would be our responsibility.” Does Bell not understand that the surveyed boundary marks modern boundaries, not the boundaries of the cemetery when it was in use? The deed for Vick notes it covers 7.84 acres. The present-day estimate is 7.75 acres. That .09 acres is likely the strip of land now included in the public right-of-way. We know there are graves in that strip of land. Is Bell actually suggesting that the City bears no responsibility for what happens to these dead?

“As I said, we need to be careful,” Bell continues. “Let’s hope the fencing will resolved [sic] this situation. Moving the goalposts will not help the effort. If we allow the area of the cemetery to be expanded then the next discovery might be 50 feet to the north or south. Then we find ourselves in a delicate situation.” Wow. If nothing else, I guess, I appreciate Bell’s candor.

As for the fable of the man, the boy, and their donkey, the moral of the story is that everyone has their own opinion, and there is no way one can satisfy all. I’m struggling to apply this lesson to the situation at hand, but Gillettia Morgan apparently is not, for she responded to Bell, “Very well said.”

Lane Street Project: response to the 18 August 2023 request re power poles.

Yesterday, I received responses to my July 23 and August 18 requests to the City of Wilson for public records concerning Vick Cemetery. Below is the response to the August 18 request, which concerned the power poles we recently deduced were placed in Vick Cemetery after the site had been cleared of headstones, graded, and adorned with a single monument.

As set forth in the letter below beginning at the third paragraph, the City has not located any documents related to the planning and installation of power poles in Vick and Rountree Cemeteries. Its sole responsive documents are references to data and maps found in the GPR report or at the City of Wilson’s GIS website. It provided screenshots of those images, which I have excerpted below. Bottom line: the poles were manufactured in 1997, which confirms they were installed no earlier than than year.


The red lines present power lines. The power poles are represented by blue dots. Date was provided for four steel poles, which are marked with blue rectangles. I have been way off with my estimates of their height. The first (closest to the substation) is 95 feet in height. The rest are 90 feet. If 90 to 95 feet is the height above ground (and not the length of the pole), the section of pole below ground is roughly 11 to 11.5 feet. In the middle of graves.

The poles were last inspected eight years ago and were found to be in good condition. What happens when they need to be replaced?

Lane Street Project: public records request update.

I’m not sure who needs to hear it — city attorney, city clerk, communications director, mayor, council, whomever — but the City of Wilson does not timely respond to public records requests.

I still have not received responses to the July 23 and August 7 requests detailed here.

But there’s this.

In my August 18 follow-up letter to various folk whose titles are mentioned above, I repeated my request for a final version of New South Associates’ GPR report. In response, City Clerk Tonya West told me it’s been posted to the City’s website at this link.

In reviewing the document, I could not find a new graphic New South’s Sarah Lowry displayed in her presentation to council on August 17.  On August 21, I emailed Lowry, West, and Communications Director Rebecca Agner: “Good morning, Ms. Lowry. At Wilson City Council last week, your presentation included a graphic showing markers placed at the edges of the surveyed area. However, I cannot locate the graphic in the final report. Please advise. Thank you.”

Nobody responded. I ratcheted up the request.

Less than two hours later, I had the graphic and — bonus — Lowry’s whole powerpoint.

The graphic deserves its own post, so more about it later. In the meantime, I have a third request pending, dated August 18, and a few more queued up, and I suggest the City refresh its understanding of its obligations under the law with this helpful document.

[P.S. The August 17 council meeting is also posted. Sarah Lowry’s presentation begins at 22:15. Rebecca Agner and another person walk in at 22:46 with stacks of GPR reports to give to council for the first time, though the City had had them several days at that point. See 35:20 for that.]

Lane Street Project: the unanswered emails to city officials.

I surely hope that when residents contact council members for ordinary constituent services, they get better service than this. Don’t be fooled by performative politics, folks. Watch what they do, not what they say. (If they say anything at all.)

In the minutes after the May 11 open forum on the Vick Cemetery GPR report, Mayor Carlton Stevens and Councilmember Gillettia Morgan asked if I could provide a few fast-action items prior to council’s next agenda work session on June 1. Here was my response:

After four days of silence, I wrote:

Morgan replied; the Mayor did not:

I responded with thanks and another quick-hit item.

Morgan promptly responded with the attachment enlarged below.

She provided an update of actions taken by council, noting that the land survey was complete; the surveillance cameras were in place; and New South Associates had okayed and would oversee installation of a fence. She also agreed to place a copy of the GPR report with the library and requested that I provide a copy of my presentation as well. No mention of the independent investigation. Or the reconsecration. (For the record, there is a reconsecration service planned at Vick on August 5, but it is not City-planned or -sponsored. I reached out to two local ministers who got the ball rolling.)

I was a little confused about the “survey” part and asked if a survey map had been produced already.

Morgan’s answer is ambiguous. I initially assumed that by “survey report” she meant a land survey map, but I now think she meant a final GPR survey report.

I responded with some notes about the survey flags and urged that the areas at the edges of the cemetery be scanned with GPR. I did not receive a response to this email.

Fifteen days later, I wrote to ask for confirmation that the City had not ordered the contractor to prepare a survey map. The City is not being transparent, I asserted. In keeping with the theme — no response.

I followed up after four days. Crickets.

On June 29, I emailed all seven council members, the Mayor, the city manager, and the various city officials whose fingerprints are all over decisions about Vick Cemetery. I repeated my request, first made in December 2019, for a full survey map of Vick. (Note that some people received duplicate emails. That’s because, in a shocking lapse of cybersecurity and public records protocols, several council members conduct city business using personal email addresses.) Not one person responded.

Twelve days later, I circled back to ask the Mayor and Councilmember Morgan their positions on the survey map. Neither has responded.

On July 13, I asked City Clerk Tonya West to confirm that the GPR report provided on April 18 was not the final version and to ask if the final would include updates from New South’s June 29 activity. West has not responded.

On July 23, I emailed West and city attorney Jim Cauley a public records request for documents related to Vick Cemetery. Details of the request to come. Neither West nor Cauley has acknowledged receipt of the request.


Expect more. Demand more.

We want a full survey map of the property.

We want GPR work completed at the edges of Vick and in the public right-of-way, and we want a soil penetrometer survey of any wooded areas as recommended by New South Associates.

We want engagement with the descendant community on any proposals for restoration and repair at Vick Cemetery and certainly before any decisions are made about anything, including fences and parking lots. There’s much more to talk about.

We want transparency and accountability.

Lane Street Project: pulling back the curtain at City Hall (annotated.)

Thursday, I presented a timeline drawn from emails produced by the City of Wilson in partial response to two public records requests. Today, I insert my own thoughts about what these documents reveal. My overarching reaction is deep disappointment. I searched the pages for any expression of compassion, sympathy, empathy. Anything other than the callous indifference and deflection that I read. I found none.

We’ve been focusing on reaching the hearts and minds of elected officials, but it’s the career powerbrokers we need to be taking hard looks at. The city manager, the department heads, the communications director who gate-keep and decide whether elected officials — and local press — get information at all.