Vick cemetery

Lane Street Project: Maplewood vs. Vick, 1940.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Aerial photographs shot in 1940 show the stark difference in the design and upkeep of segregated Maplewood and Vick Cemeteries.

We see Maplewood, founded in 1876 (and since expanded northwest across Hill Street), laid out in an orderly grid. The circle of trees, since removed, at the center of the first eight sections marks the location of the city’s Confederate monument, which was unveiled in 1902. The gateway arch is southwest of the monument, at Woodard Street.

And here we see Vick Cemetery — plus Odd Fellows and Rountree — on a dirt road outside city limits and surrounded by piney woods and corn fields. Vick, founded in 1913, is at left and takes up about two-thirds of what looks like a single graveyard, but is in fact three. There is no internal grid, no clearly marked access paths, no uniform spacing of graves or family plots. Certainly no Spanish Revival gateways or monuments to heroic ancestors. Though the city had established Rest Haven Cemetery in 1933, Vick remained active until the early 1960s, and hundreds of people were buried there in the 1940s alone. As poorly as it compares to Maplewood, Vick Cemetery never looked this good again.

Lane Street Project: how long?

The headline outraged me: “City budgets cemetery arch fix.” May I remind you — the city of Wilson established Vick Cemetery as an all-Black public cemetery in 1913, neglected it for most of the twentieth century, and finally stripped of its headstones in the 1990s. The city has no records of its burials, either by name or number. Four months ago, despite protests from some council members about the thirty thousand dollar cost, Wilson City Council agreed to fund ground-penetrating radar for Vick. To date, this project has not budged, as city officials continue to cavil about the city’s responsibility to its own cemetery.

And yet. Despite the Cemetery Commission’s recommendation to the contrary, the city now admits it has already budgeted for the $125,000 repair of the 100 year-old archway at the entrance of Maplewood Cemetery. As the Daily Times reported it: “Funding to replace the arch was included in the 2020-21 budget in a maintenance account, not as a specific project designated specifically for the arch,” said Rebecca Agner, the city of Wilson’s communications and marketing director. “While this method is acceptable from a budget perspective, it led to some miscommunication between departments about the project. As you can imagine with the number of facilities the city operates, there is a long list of maintenance projects each year, so the total maintenance budget was managed for the year without the cemetery arch being completed.”

What in the lack of transparency is this????

I am rarely in Wilson when Council meets, but yesterday I was, so: 

And I go busting down to City Hall ready to sign up for public comment. But this:

And thus, Wilson City Council was spared a piece of my mind about its prioritization of the repair of a decorative structure at Maplewood — a cemetery whose operations, by the way, for years have depended heavily on income derived from historically Black Rest Haven Cemetery, because for better or worse Black folk in Wilson bury, rather than cremate, their dead at a rate much higher than white people and overwhelmingly choose a public cemetery as the place for those burials — over the repair of the breaches of trust created by decades of damage and disrespect to actual graves at Vick.

For your consideration:

“Picture on right shows to entrance to Maplewood with Confederate memorial in background.” Wilson Daily Times, 14 August 1959. This is the arch that the city is spending $125,000 (in 2020 dollars, which might be double that now given inflation and supply chain woes) to fix. The background is still there, too.

The precious arch at Maplewood bears this inscription: 

In this garden of shrubs, flowers and grass lie the quiet ashes of our departed loved ones, in dreamless, protected peaceful sleep. 

Never mind that Vick Cemetery never had a grand gateway and was never a garden. (Nor Rest Haven, for that matter.) What devastates is that the sleep of East Wilson’s departed loved ones is neither peaceful nor protected.

How long will the City of Wilson continue to deprioritize and disrespect our dead?

Lane Street Project: the power poles.

Yes, indeed. What you’re looking at is a long line of utility poles marching down Bishop L.N. Forbes (formerly, Lane) Street, well within the historic boundaries of Vick and Rountree Cemeteries. 

Three enormous poles pin down the edge of Vick Cemetery. I don’t know when the easement was granted for the lines, or when they were erected, but I can guarantee it was decades after the Lane Street cemeteries were established. 

The first pole below stands on the high ridge at the front of Rountree Cemetery. Its base is completely engulfed by at least a decade of woody growth. Not thirty feet away, under a canopy of honeysuckle and other vines, is a pile of broken headstones dating to the 1920s. Were they moved to make way for power poles?

Whose lines are these?

Photos by Lisa Y. Henderson, March 2022.

Lane Street Project: the Mercer siblings.

In June 1964, the Rocky Mount Telegram reported the tragic death of two teenaged siblings from Spring Hope, Nash County. Seventeen year-old Nora Jane Mercer had drowned trying to save her 16 year-old brother William Earl Mercer, who also drowned in a pond a few miles north of Bailey.

Rocky Mount Telegram, 12 June 1964.

Nora Mercer’s death certificate listed her cause of death as “drowning … while swimming in farm pond” and described her accident as “trying to save her brother.” William Toney’s Funeral Home, still active today in Spring Hope, handled the burial, which took place in … Rountree Cemetery? In 1964?!?

William Mercer’s death certificate also lists Rountree Cemetery in Wilson as his burial place. Why would two Spring Hope children be buried more than 20 miles away in Wilson?

I first wondered if this were a family cemetery — Rountree is not an uncommon surname here — located just over the Nash County line in Wilson County. (I don’t know of any such cemetery, but I wondered.) However, the double obituary for the siblings made clear that they were indeed buried in Rountree (or its sister cemeteries, Vick and Odd Fellows, collectively and confusingly known as Rountree). Further, their funeral was also in Wilson — at Piney Grove Free Will Baptist Church.

Rocky Mount Telegram, 14 June 1964.

The obituary gives Nora and William Mercer’s parents as Mr. and Mrs. Willie Austin. However, this was likely their stepfather and mother (and the surname, per the death certificate, was Alston.) Louise Alston was informant for the certificates, and she named the children’s parents as William Mercer and Louise Webb. William Mercer and Louvenia [actually, Louisianna] Webb were married in Wilson County in September 1946. Both were Wilson County natives. It appears that they divorced, and Louise Webb Mercer married an Alston. So, as we can establish that the Mercer children did have close ties to Wilson, we can be more certain that they were buried in one of the set of cemeteries on (former) Lane Street collectively called Rountree Cemetery.

Now to the most puzzling fact — 1964.

This is an aerial view of Vick, Odd Fellows, and Rountree Cemeteries in 1964.

Vick Cemetery had been condemned in the late 1950s as unfit for human burial. (Vick is the most likely of site of the children’s burials as it was a public cemetery, they were not members of Rountree Missionary Baptist Church, and there is no evidence that their father was an Odd Fellow.) By 1964, all three cemeteries were severely overgrown, with none of the bare-earth family plots so readily observable in earlier decades.

I checked Joan L. Howell’s Wilson County Cemeteries, Vol. V: The Two City-Owned African-American Cemeteries, which contains a list of 600+ burials from the last 25 years or so  these cemeteries were active as burial sites. In her searches of local death certificates, the latest burials Howell found were three from 1960, six from 1961, and one from 1962. Thus, as far as now known, Nora Jane and William Earl Mercer were the last people buried in Vick, Odd Fellows, or Rountree Cemeteries.

Many thanks to Noelle Vollaro for bringing the Mercer siblings to my attention.

Lane Street Project: In anticipation of GPR at Vick Cemetery.

I’m still awaiting official confirmation of details, but I have been notified that Wilson City Council approved funds for a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) survey of Vick Cemetery. While this survey won’t identify by name the thousands buried there, it is a step in the right direction and should give us a good idea of the locations of the cemetery’s graves and a closer count of their number.

During the period that GPR for Vick was under discussion, I learned that a city department recently spent five thousand dollars for a GPR survey of a tiny parcel of land downtown that was the family cemetery of one of the earliest white families to settle in what is now Wilson. I was interested in how the city came to spend five thousand dollars of public money on a quarter-acre private graveyard, given its howls and cries about even mowing the grass at Odd Fellows and its side-eyeing of the thirty-thousand dollar cost set out in the initial bid for GPR at Vick — which, at almost eight acres, is more than 30 times larger than the Old Farmer Cemetery and is city-owned property.

So I made a Public Records Act request. I received a prompt response and share some excerpts here with you (as well as the receipt).

The GPR report, prepared in September 2021 for Wilson’s Planning and Revitalization Department, offers exciting glimpses into what we might find at Vick.

 

Lane Street Project: a moment of appreciation.

The news from Lane Street Project this weekend isn’t all bad. Castonoble Hooks and Briggs Sherwood, our self-styled “senior force,” went out yesterday to get some work in ahead of the wintry mix and to try out the new gas-powered weed whacker we purchased in part with a generous donation.

The ever-eloquent Cas summed up the Senior Force beautifully: “There are things in life that enhance its essence. One such thing for me has been The Lane Street Project. Lisa Henderson’s public appeal for the Odd Fellows brought together multicultural citizens of various ages and religious beliefs around the idea of restoration of this black cemetery. This is when I met Briggs Sherwood. Our ages and our desire to work we share, but that’s all. In contrast to Briggs, who is a descendant of white planters, I am a descendant of slaves and sharecroppers. Briggs has family buried in Maplewood Cemetery, I have family buried in Vick Cemetery, we both work together to restore Odd Fellows. Last week we attended together the Cemetery Commission meeting to chart progress on the issue of Vick Cemetery. Working on this project has added hope in a better day by simple people working together for the common good.”

Thank you, Castonoble. Thank you, Briggs. Your steadfast enthusiasm and unfailing accountability never fail to recharge my faith.

Photo courtesy of Briggs Sherwood.

Lane Street Project: new dumping.

Today at Vick Cemetery:

We cancelled our clean-up Monday because of an icy forecast, but the Devil stays busy. The abuse of this sacred space continues, but we are not discouraged. We will report this dumping to the Public Works Department, redouble our encouragement of the city to properly care for and honor the cemetery’s dead, and continue to raise awareness as we clean Vick’s sister cemeteries.

Photo courtesy of Castonoble Hooks. 

Lane Street Project: Radar could locate lost graves.

Another LSP-relevant article from Wilson Times‘ Drew C. Wilson, this time reporting on Wilson Cemetery Commission’s most recent meeting. See the original article, which posted online on 13 January 2022, here. See my comments on highlighted portions of the article below.

“The Wilson Cemetery Commission chair says the city might use ground-penetrating radar to locate graves at Vick Cemetery, where hundreds of African Americans are interred.

“Chairman Charlie Pat Farris Jr. said the commission currently manages and maintains the city-owned Maplewood and Rest Haven cemeteries, but plans are afoot to add Vick Cemetery to the panel’s oversight responsibilities. The commission enforces state and local laws regulating burial grounds.

“Vick Cemetery, located on 7.84 acres of land off Bishop L.N. Forbes Street, was purchased by the city of Wilson in 1913 and operated until the late 1950s when it was condemned.

“Historians believe the cemetery contains 500 to 2,000 African American graves.

“‘In 1990, the cemetery was littered with household discards, such as refrigerators, stoves, bedsprings and trash. A tangle of bushes, vines and small trees had reclaimed the cemetery,’ The Wilson Daily Times reported in a 1996 story about the cemetery.

“In May 1996, the city of Wilson installed an obelisk at the site to memorialize those buried there.

“Today, Vick Cemetery has no other markers. As a result, graves’ exact location is a mystery.

“Farris suggested marking each grave with a cross or a small headstone once they’re found.

“He said city officials asked the commission to obtain cost estimates to mark the graves’ location with ground-penetrating radar.

“‘When the imaging is done, we will know exactly where all the graves are,” Farris said. ‘The removal of the headstones back in the mid-’90s, nobody nowadays seems to take responsibility for it, and nobody knows what happened to the markers. We can’t even trace whose names are there, although we are told through some old books that we might have the names of about 400 people.

“Farris said the city has no records indicating who is buried at Vick Cemetery.

“‘But we can at least pay homage and honor their memory by saying, “This is where a person is buried” and to be respectful when you are out walking on it,’ Farris said.

“The radar marking project would cost about $5,000 per acre, he said.

“‘I know it has gotten to be more expensive than they first thought, but we will have to just wait and see,’ said Wilson City Councilman Derrick Creech.

“Creech said he would meet with city officials this week about placing Vick Cemetery under the cemetery commission’s umbrella. He said that responsibility should have been turned over ‘a long time ago.’

“‘It should have been, but it has not been given to us,’ said commission member JoAnn Hickman. ‘We need to know from the city when everything has been taken care of through the mayor and then we can proceed with Vick, but right now, we have no say over Vick.’

“Farris said Mayor Carlton Stevens directed the commission to prepare a list of items it would need to maintain the cemetery ‘so that we would be able to hit the ground running if it’s approved after we have the imaging done.’

“Creech said the city hasn’t taken up the matter since before Christmas.

“‘Until we get together and the city and the cemetery commission get together and make a decision on what we are going to do, right now we are just talking,’ Hickman said.

“The board tabled discussion on the wish list to request more details on some items. The list includes a tractor, several lawn mowers, soil and cemetery software.

“A 1990 Wilson Cemetery Commission report cited in a Times story indicated the Wilson County Health Department condemned Vick Cemetery in the late 1950s ‘as being unfit for human burial.’

“The city cleared the land of overgrowth in 1991 and removed the remaining grave markers from 1991-96.

“Decades of neglect allowed litter, overgrowth and vandalism to proliferate. Many Wilson families disinterred their late relatives from Vick Cemetery and had them buried in the nearby Rest Haven Cemetery.

“‘We are not talking about going back and correcting things from the past,’ said Castonoble Hooks, a concerned citizen who attended Monday’s cemetery commission meeting. ‘We are talking about from this point forward, start planning with more equity, start planning with more fairness.’

“Farris said the present commission has tried to make improvements at both Maplewood Cemetery, a predominantly white graveyard, and Rest Haven Cemetery, a predominantly African American graveyard.

“‘I appreciate it, and all I am asking for is more of the same,’ Hooks said at the meeting, held in the commission’s Maplewood Cemetery office. ‘Look how beautiful this cemetery is, how it is bordered with trees. How come Rest Haven Cemetery is not bordered with trees? It is an ongoing process here, but it seems like a patchwork effort over there.’

“Farris agreed, but he said that wasn’t the current commission’s doing.

“‘All we are asking for is equity,’ Creech said. ‘We are asking that the things that are done here can be done over there. We are not looking for anything extra. What has happened in the past, we know it. It’s history, but we’ve got to move on.’

“Hickman said Maplewood Cemetery was ‘laid out with what you call “old Wilson money.”‘

“‘These people came together and they designed and they laid out their cemetery,’ Hickman said. ‘But then when you go over to Rest Haven, it was not organized in such a manner; therefore, we are now trying. We are working on it.’

“Hickman said the current commission had only a few years to accomplish these things.

“‘In five years, you can’t do a whole lot. We can only do so much in five years. We have got so many things we have been working on,’ she said. ‘Give us a chance to do what we are trying to do. We’ve got some work in the making. We can’t do everything right now.'”

——

  • “Might use”? This is a worrisome equivocation.
  • I would put the estimate of the number of graves well north of 2000. See this survey, which shows 1491 grave locations detected visually in 1995.
  • City council authorized removal of the grave markers in 1996. That is well-documented. Their fate is more mysterious, but only in the details. The city’s Public Works Department stored the markers for several years, then, around 2002, destroyed them.
  • I am not aware of any “old books” naming Vick’s dead. There is this volume, published in 2015, which attempts to identify burials based on death certificates. The effort — and result — are complicated by the imprecise and indiscriminate designation of Rountree, Odd Fellows, and Vick Cemeteries as the “Rountree” or “colored” cemetery. As noted, the Cemetery Commission currently has no records of Vick’s burials.
  • In a nod toward restorative justice, surely the City of Wilson can find $30,000 to locate the graves of thousands of its citizens. This balking at spending a pittance to redress the wrongs done at Vick in the 1990s (much less its neglect during the 40+ years it was an active city cemetery) is dismaying.
  • By its own definition, “Wilson Cemetery Commission is responsible for maintaining and operating publicly owned cemeteries.” Vick is a cemetery. Vick is publicly owned. It should have been under the Cemetery Commission’s umbrella all along. [Historical side note: there was once a Colored Cemetery Commission. I have found only one reference to it, which did not identify its members. Were records related to Vick and its predecessor Oakdale (the Cemetery Street cemetery) in the charge of this Commission? If so, were those records ever turned over to the “white” Commission, which seems to have exercised some sort of oversight over Rest Haven from the start? Or did it? Did the Colored Commission handle Rest Haven’s records until Wilson finally began to integrate its public facilities in the 1960s? If so, this might explain why the current Commission has no early Rest Haven burial records either.
  • A word about “decades of neglect.” Late twentieth-century public debates about what to do with Vick were charged with recriminations that its families should have done more to keep it up and should never have allowed it to deteriorate to wilderness. Let’s be clear. Vick Cemetery was founded as a public cemetery and remains city-owned. Never, anywhere, has anyone suggested that the upkeep of Maplewood Cemetery and its Confederate monument were the responsibility of the families of their dead. The construction of this sentence obscures the actors. The City of Wilson allowed litter, overgrowth, and vandalism through decades of neglect.

Cemetery records request update, no. 7: burials at Vick Cemetery.

I submitted my most recent public records request to the Wilson Cemetery Commission on 16 December 2021. In pertinent part, it read:

The response was quick. At this time, the Cemetery Commission has no record of any burials made in Vick Cemetery and cannot identify the reference to 37 burials made between 1949 and 1955. Further, the Cemetery Commission has no record of a 1990 report.