It’s my first visit to Wilson since George E. Freeney Jr. sent me the astonishing aerial photos of drought-browned Vick Cemetery giving up its secrets. I was curious — how visible were the graves at ground-level?
The answer: not very, but knowing where to look helps. Here — rest in peace — two graves lying a few dozen yards east of the central monument.
I’m on tenterhooks awaiting the results of the GPR study, and hope it will be available in time for Lane Street Project’s third season.
In 1929, a circus cook died instantly after falling under the wheels of a large truck on South Goldsboro Street. Per the Daily Times‘ October 1 issue, circus officials identified him as Frank Whitley, but knew little else about him.
By time his death certificate issued the following day, more information was available. The man’s name, instead, was Henry Thompson, and he was a native of Birmingham, Alabama. He was 25 years old, but his marital status was unknown.
Per the news article, Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Circus paid undertaker C.H. Darden & Sons to bury Thompson in Wilson. Rest Haven had not yet been established; he was probably laid to rest in an unmarked grave in Vick Cemetery.
The northwest edge of Vick Cemetery, from above. Photo courtesy of George E. Freeney Jr.
Before he left for Alabama, George E. Freeney Jr. sent more drone photos of Vick Cemetery. These images spurred me to begin an arduous task I’ve been putting off for a year — trying to figure out who is buried in Vick Cemetery.
As noted before, the City of Wilson has no records of burials or plots sold in Vick. The survey of surviving gravestones that was supposed to have been made when the cemetery was cleared either was never created or has been lost.
The task is further complicated by naming practices. Vick Cemetery was not called Vick Cemetery during its active period. It was “the colored cemetery” or, most confusingly, was lumped with Rountree and Odd Fellows Cemeteries as “Rountree.” Death certificates, though official records, were shockingly imprecise, with most before World War II listing the place of burial simply as “Wilson, N.C.” From 1913 to about World War II, most of these burials would have been in Vick, as it was the city’s public Black cemetery, but we can only make informed guesses.
The database I’ve created draws primarily from grave markers, death certificates, and newspaper obituaries. I am deliberately omitting Rest Haven burials, but the database will necessarily include burials in other Black cemeteries operating in Wilson in the late 1890s and early 1900s, such Oakdale/Oakland/Oaklawn, Rountree, Odd Fellows, and the Masonic cemeteries. If the location of a burial can be firmly identified as one of those cemeteries, my spreadsheet will note it.
For now, data for each burial includes name; whether a gravestone has been found; birth and death dates; confirmed location of grave; death certificate found; place of death; name of undertaker; place of burial as noted on death cert; place of burial as noted in obituary; and notes.
Here’s a peek:
From time to time, I’ll provide updates on the status of the spreadsheet, highlighting anomalies and interesting finds.
The faint green specks marking the presence of graves are most visible in the western half of Vick, and the lower third of the eastern half. The recent ground-penetrating radar survey of the cemetery will yield better information about the distribution of burials across the site.
Odd Fellows Cemetery was once indistinguishable from Vick on the ground. The forest you see here, the one Lane Street Project has been hacking at for two seasons, hides the same orderly rows of graves as those you see in Vick.
I’ve circled the three utility poles marching down one side of the cemetery. A base of a forty-foot utility pole is buried six feet deep. The same as a grave.
No bodies were disinterred to make way for the central monument, the parking lot, or the path linking them. They’re lying atop graves.
The western third of Vick, at left, is its highest ground at about 130 feet above sea level. The ground drops steadily as one moves east to about 115 feet at Vick’s border with Odd Fellows. After a hard rain, sheets of water stand in the flat. (The “hill” at the front of Odd Fellows is about 124 feet above sea level, and the marshy ground at the back of that cemetery is about 110.)
Drought has seized Wilson County, leaving wild grasses brown and brittle.
… and revealing the stark truth of Vick Cemetery.
George Freeney Jr. launched a drone over Vick recently, thinking to snag a few images as mementoes of his time in Wilson. What he captured stopped my heart.
Those little lozenges where the grass is growing greener and lusher? These are the ancestors revealed in plain sight. These are the graves of our people.
Last month, when I spoke at a Wilson City Council meeting to give thanks to all who made radar survey of Vick Cemetery possible, I stated as one reason the work is important is that the dead cannot speak.
I was wrong.
Row after row. Side by side. Despite decades in which its stewards allowed a forest to spring up over it, and tires to pile high in its weeds, and power poles to punch through its sacred soil, and its headstones to be ripped up and cast away, Vick Cemetery’s dead — my father’s baby brother, my cousins, your grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles — are speaking loudly and clearly: WE ARE NOT LOST. WE ARE HERE.
We rejoice, we give thanks, we renew our vows to restore recognition and dignity to our dead.
The prayers of the righteous availeth much.
Radar locates ‘thousands of graves’: scan pinpoints Vick Cemetery’s lost burial sites
by Drew C. Wilson, Wilson Times, 7 July 2022
Researchers who spent two weeks using ground-penetrating radar to examine Vick Cemetery said Thursday that the graveyard is “quite dense” and “a well-populated cemetery.”
Jordan Cole, an assistant geophysics specialist with Greensboro-based New South Associates, supervised a radar survey of more than 7 acres of land off Bishop L.N. Forbes Street from June 20-30.
“It is what we expected, there are thousands of graves there,” Cole said. “It looks really quite dense like a well-populated cemetery, you might say.”
Cole said the actual number of graves has not been calculated from the 13 grids into which the site was divided.
“In our process, when Jordan was out in the field, he collected thousands of transects out in the field,” said Sarah Lowry, director of geophysics at New South Associates. “They take those all in and eventually stack them all together to create three-dimensional blocks of data. We put those all together and create a three-dimensional block of changes below the ground.”
Lowry said analysis of the 3D blocks “is the tedious part.”
“Jordan is about to embark upon that stage of data processing and interpretation, so that is the stage that he is in,” Lowry said. “This is where the real information comes from. He is going to go through every single two-dimensional transect and all of those three-dimensional data blocks and map out each individual possible burial in the ground.”
Cole said that in addition to individual graves, the GPR data, which looks at changes in soil densities, was able to detect other features that could aid research into the arrangement of the graveyard.
“We were able to discern some little land features like there might be a couple of roads or pathways that we can try to map and figure out the layout of the cemetery in a little more detail,” Cole said.
Lowry said it is the careful, methodical data analysis that will assist in finding the site’s older graves.
“Those hard-to-detect ones are going to be people who were buried in more ephemeral burial containers or the older graves or maybe children or infants in smaller graves,” she said. “Those are harder to map.”
Last week, photographer George Freeney flew his drone over Vick Cemetery and immediately recognized a series of rectangles in the first photograph he captured.
Freeney recognized the repetitive rectangles as soon as he saw the photograph.
“It was completely obvious,” said Freeney, who has relatives in the graveyard. “I know that I have people out here. I know they are at rest. They are at rest. We just don’t know who they are.”
Cole said especially on the western side of the cemetery, there seemed to be a lot of visible graves that were “right there in front of us.”
“When we showed up on the first day, they had recently mowed. We were there for two weeks and by the end of the two weeks, you could see taller and lusher grass growing where the graves were,” Cole said. “When it became a little more overgrown, it was even clearer to see those graves.”
“As African Americans, we are looking for relics. We are looking for things that we can hold onto to build our heritage because we just don’t know,” Freeney said. “This is absolutely sacred ground.”
Cole said he will spend the next two weeks looking through the data.
“It will be a couple of months until we have a complete report,” Lowry said. “That report will include all of our methods as well as a lot of maps showing where we did find graves, the numbers and depth estimates for the graves.”
“It is just a lot of grinding workto sort it through,” Cole said.
The only place not scanned with ground-penetrating radar was a large area of vegetation around the monument the city installed in May 1996.
The city of Wilson spent nearly $29,159 to undertake the GPR work.
The city has owned Vick Cemetery since 1913. In 1990, the city razed the cemetery’s grave markers and removed debris. In doing so, much of the history of Wilson’s African American residents were lost.
For more about Lane Street Project’s efforts at Vick Cemetery, start here — note especially the survey map included in the post — and search this blog for more.
Photos courtesy of George E. Freeney Jr., all rights reserved.
It took only a few minutes Monday afternoon for ground-penetrating radar operators to detect graves at Vick Cemetery.
The two-man crew from Greensboro-based New South Associates will work at the African American cemetery for two weeks in an effort to pinpoint every burial site.
The 7.84-acre, city-owned graveyard off Bishop L.N. Forbes Street was cleared of all its trees and grave markers in the mid-1990s after an extended period of neglect, but the effort to clean up the cemetery resulted in the destruction of a considerable amount of history for the African American community in Wilson.
“We just finished our first grid of ground-penetrating radar, and immediately we were seeing radar reflections that are indicative of graves,” said assistant geophysics specialist Jordan Cole. “It is hard to tell exactly how many, but it looks fairly densely packed from what I have seen already. We did a grid that was 14 meters by 16 meters, and in each profile, we are seeing evidence for six to 10 graves.”
Wilson historian Lisa Y. Henderson, a former resident of Wilson who now lives in Atlanta, called the city’s use of ground-penetrating radar “a huge step” in many ways.
“First, it is the first affirmative action by the city in several decades to claim its ownership of Vick Cemetery,” Henderson said. “The things that were done at Vick in the past, which were well intended but had pretty devastating consequences, can’t be corrected, but it is vital for us to have a sense of how many people are buried there.”
Right now, people who drive past Vick Cemetery just see a big, empty field.
“If we aren’t able to even tell people how many people are buried there and where they are buried, it is difficult for Vick to regain its place in people’s consciousness as a sacred place,” Henderson said.
In the mid-1990s, she said, a visual survey located about 1,500 graves.
“But given the period of time that Vick was active, which was roughly 1913 when the city acquired it until the 1950s, that’s 40 years, and there would have been at least 100 burials a year, probably more for much of that period,” Henderson said.
She said records are difficult to decipher because Vick Cemetery and the adjacent Rountree and Odd Fellows cemeteries were collectively called Rountree.
“So it kind of obscures where the actual burials were, but the aerial imagery that we are lucky enough to have from the ‘30s and ‘40s shows that it was an active cemetery, a full cemetery, a place that was an important institution in our community,” Henderson said.
HOW IT WORKS
Cole and archaeologist Chris Triplett of Farmville set up a grid system across the property and began a systematic scan of the whole area.
“GPR works by telling the difference between dense soil and less dense soil,” Cole explained. “Wherever there is a contrast between the density of the soil, the GPR will pick that up. So we will see regular disturbance, but we should also be able to see graves as long as the cut from the grade is still preserved from the disturbance that is higher up.”
The system is able to see close to 3 to 4 meters (9.8 to 13.1 feet) deep.
“It’s the same concept as regular radar that you might use to watch and track air traffic,” Cole said. “It focuses its energy and looks straight down at the ground. It will send out an electromagnetic pulse into the ground. The pulse will hit something, and then the pulse will return back to the antennae and the machine records the time that it takes to leave the machine, hit something, which in this case is a change in density of soil, and return. By telling how quickly that travel time is — it is called travel time — we will know how far away it is from the antennae, which translates into how deep it is below the soil.”
GPR works by collecting a series of parallel lines of data.
“We space them at half a meter between each line,” Cole said. “When we are collecting data in the field, we can only see that individual line that we are collecting at that time in the field. Then when we go and process it with the computer, we can line up every profile side by side and use a computer to interpolate that data and produce a bird’s eye view of the reflections in the ground, and that will show us the graves in the ground and how big they are.
“Once the crew takes the data back to the office to start processing it, they will be able to produce a map that shows wherever there is ground disturbance across the whole area, and we can map the size of those disturbances and mark which ones are graves. Hopefully we can produce a pretty accurate map of where every grave is across the whole zone.”
The city is paying $29,159 for the company to conduct the work.
WHO IS BURIED THERE?
“The way a community treats its dead says something about that community,” Henderson said.
“I think it’s past time that Wilson demonstrates is commitment to all of its citizens, past and present, and honors the lives of the folks that are buried in Vick, probably most of whom were working-class people, tobacco factory workers, agricultural laborers and domestic workers,” she said. “They are the people who built east Wilson. They are the people who worked in the homes and the businesses downtown and in west Wilson and eased the lives of what might have been called the city’s leading citizens, so in that way they played a role too in the development of what we now know as Wilson.”
Henderson said she is excited about the project.
“I am looking so forward to seeing the report that results from it,” she said. “I have seen some reports for ground-penetrating radar, but on a much smaller scale. So it will really be exciting to see what evidence is left.”
Henderson has provided the company with documents to compare to its findings.
“We appreciate the opportunity to assist the city in mapping the landscape of the Vick Cemetery so that all who lie there can be recognized and remembered,” she said.
Castonoble Hooks, a member of the Wilson Cemetery Commission, said he is delighted that the project has started.
“It is not too late for them to begin to rectify the wrongs that they have done,” Hooks said. “Omitting these people for so very long, I hope that this is a sea change as far as the direction that the city has in public cemeteries and its treatment toward Blacks.”
For more photos and to support local media, please visit this article at Wilson Times online.
“Good evening. I am Lisa Y. Henderson of Atlanta, Georgia, and Bel Air Avenue, Wilson. I am curator of the blog Black Wide-Awake and founder of Lane Street Project.
“I am not in Wilson as often as I would like to be, but was excited to learn when I got home today that ground-penetrating radar is slated to start Monday at city-owned Vick Cemetery. It is a fitting undertaking for the day after Juneteenth and an important step to restoring dignity to our community’s dead. Though we will never know exactly who is buried in Vick, we can know more about the number of people buried there and where their bodies lie.
“I and, I’d wager, every African-American in this room have family in Vick Cemetery, and the city’s recognition of its responsibility to this sacred space is welcome. I thank Mayor Stephens, members of council, the city manager, and any and all city employees who have or will have a hand in this important endeavor. The dead cannot speak, but this survey will help voice their stories. Again, thank you.”
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.
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?
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?