Vick cemetery

Lane Street Project: are there graves on the other side of the road?

Are there graves on the other side of Bishop L.N. Forbes Street?

Here is the evidence we have:

Per an aerial from Wilson County GIS website, here are the four cemetery parcels, plus the parcels across the street from Vick and Odd Fellows. All this land was originally part of a large farm owned by Frank W. and Mattie B. Barnes. Descendants of the Barneses still own the Wright Trust property and the Wilson Farm Properties parcel.

Rountree Missionary Baptist Church owns parcels on both sides of the road, one purchased in 1897 and the other in 1906. Together, they constitute Rountree Cemetery. No headstones currently are visible in the Rountree lot on the northwest side of the street. However, in late winter, profuse drifts of daffodils bloom in this lot, common indicators of old graves.

There is also this:

It is difficult to see here, but this is a rectangular slab of concrete at the edge of the ditch, perhaps six to seven feet long. Its surface is covered with dead plant matter, and fire ants have built nests along its front edge. In my youth, when (then) Lane Street was a dirt road, I saw an exposed vault cover parallel to and at the very edge of the ditch lining the street. This appears to be that vault cover.

The cement slab is visible as a light-colored rectangle in this aerial from Wilson County GOS website. 

But there’s also this:

We know the City placed steel power poles in Rountree and Vick Cemeteries in 1997, and an older set of wooden poles marches down the northwest of the street, as is visible in the upper left corner. There are also a fire hydrant and a manhole cover on the northwest side of the street. In other words, there is a municipal water line running either under Bishop L.N. Forbes Street or in the public right-of-way that occupies the first ten or so feet of Rountree Cemetery, measured from the edge of the street. There are no manholes in B.L.N.F. Street, which suggests the water (and sewer?) lines are in the right-of-way. There would have been no right-of-way observed during the period Rountree was actively receiving burials. Thus, as with Rest Haven, Odd Fellows, and Vick Cemetery, there were likely burials up to the edge of Rountree — on both sides.

This detail from a 1940 aerial depicts the stretch of B.L.N.F. Street that runs past the cemeteries. The patchy light areas below the street are family plots within the graveyards. However, the light areas above the street are ambiguous. They are clearly bare earth, but do they indicate graves? And what is going on across from Vick? A 1959 aerial shows that area completely denuded. There is no evidence, however, that this parcel has left the hands of the Barnes-Harriss-Wright family since the late 1800s, and it seems unlikely that they would have permitted burials on their property.

This detail from a 1985 aerial photograph of a section of the street is similarly ambiguous. The area encircled corresponds with the local of the cement slab above and appears to show several similar light-colored rectangles. There are some small white marks on the Wilson Farm Properties parcel, but are they graves?

The same year this image was taken, a jogger on Lane Street found bones on an unspecified side of road. Public Works director Bill Bartlett stated, “There is a concrete slab over one grave on one side of the road that wasn’t there when we annexed the property in 1972,” adding “The marker says the person was buried in 1950, but the slab has been poured in the past six or seven years.” Is this the slab above?

Bartlett also reported that a woman had called Asa Shreve, a former sanitation employee, and claimed she might have relatives buried under the street.  “Asa was going to look into that for me. It could be that we need to find out who that could be and see if they want to do some digging out there to remove the remains.” I’ve found nothing further about this alarming claim, but notice Bartlett didn’t dismiss the idea outright.

It is certain that graves lie on both sides of the road in the halves of Rountree Cemetery. Whatever the photos above may or may not show, more than one person has stated with certainty that they recall (or were told) that a family member’s grave was located on land across from Vick Cemetery as well.

Lane Street Project: monthly Vick Cemetery update, 9 November 2023.

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Topic: Monthly Vick Cemetery update
Time: Nov 9, 2023 06:30 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)

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Lane Street Project: the public library’s candidate forum.

I finally had the opportunity to listen to a recording of last week’s candidate forum at Wilson County Public Library, which featured Donta Chestnut, James Johnson, Michael Bell, and Davonta Ferguson. As Rev. Bell did not speak to the Vick Cemetery issue in his interview with the Wilson Times, but did so at the forum, I offer his comments here. (And, of course, mine.)

In partial response to a question in which the candidates were asked to identify some of the issues Wilson faces and actions he would take to address them, Rev. Bell stated:

“Some of the issues we have been dealing with for the past year or so regarding cemeteries — my position is, we own it, we take care of it. If we don’t own it, then whoever owned that cemetery needs to take care of it. If we can find some way to assist them, then we will assist them. But I think we have a lot of issues that we cannot in a very meaningful way pour resources at everything. So we have to be strategic, and we put in perspective 1, 2, 3, 4, and then when we finish it, we go on to the next thing. Sometimes we want to do everything, and trying to do everything diminishes our capacity and our ability to do something that is worthwhile.”

Me: To date, Council has not proposed 1, 2, 3, or 4, or engaged in any meaningful way with the descendant community about plans for Vick. (Also, as detailed here, four years ago, the City paid nearly $5000 for a ground-penetrating radar survey of a tiny private cemetery at the corner of Kenan and Pine Streets. It is the burial ground of descendants of Benjamin Farmer, one of the earliest white settlers of what is now Wilson County. I don’t know for certain, but I’m willing to wager that the City keeps that lot mowed.)

In response to a direct question to candidates about Vick Cemetery, Rev. Bell said:

“I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. Let the dead rest. Let them rest. We are creating a problem that is solvable. If it is our cemetery, the city must take care of it. But we cannot go back and put headstones. So we can do a mural. We can become as Afrocentric as we want. But we must create something that speaks to the history of what happened and the transformation and let it be historical, instead of trying to create animosity and strife about the cemetery. We must solve it, and the only way to solve it is to come together as one community. Put the mural up, and let it speak to our history. Thank you.”


  • “Let the dead rest”?? Rev. Bell has no ancestors in Vick Cemetery. Those of us who do are asking hard questions about the decidedly unrestful conditions in which our families lie. We are not creating problems, we’re identifying them.
  • “If it is our cemetery ….” It is — and has been since 1913.
  • “We cannot go back and put headstones” — no, but we can find out what happened to them and establish standards and practices that ensure no other graves are desecrated.
  • “We can do a mural. We can become as Afrocentric as we want.” Huh? Murals require walls. There are no walls at Vick Cemetery. Like others in city government, Rev. Bell myopically focuses on the aesthetics of this burial ground, rather than the damage wrought by the City’s continued failure to protect it from harm. Vick Cemetery doesn’t need an Afrocentric mural, it needs a plan for the dozens buried under the power poles and in the public right-of-way.
  • “… instead of trying to create animosity and strife about the cemetery.” This is another page from the City’s preferred deflection playbook — cast those who speak inconvenient truths as pot-stirrers and instigators. We fight for the Lane Street cemeteries, not against anyone. 

Stillshot from video by R. Hudson. (Thank you, A. Ricks!)

Lane Street Project: District 4 candidates speak on Vick Cemetery.

Davonta Ferguson is challenging James Johnson for Wilson’s District 4 city council seat. The Times‘ feature on Ferguson did not include a statement concerning Vick Cemetery.

As reported by the Wilson Times on 19 October 2023, here’s James Johnson’s position on Vick. It warrants annotation.

(A) The discussion about Vick Cemetery he refers occurred in 1994 and was not the first time the cemetery’s conditions had been brought to council’s attention.

(B) “People don’t want to see what I qualified with.” Who are “people”? We’ll talk about Johnson’s qualified no vote below.

(C) “Morgan didn’t know it was a cemetery.” Gillettia Morgan is not quite as old as I am, so I suppose it is possible that that she didn’t know about what we then called Rountree Cemetery, even though she grew up around the corner. But this is hearsay, and the point is not what Morgan knew. She was not on council in 1994.  “Young man” or not, Johnson was an elected official whose business was, and is, to understand the issues that come before him, whether they arise in his district or not.

(D) “They presented us a plan to take care of it” — They, being Wilson Cemetery Commission, presented a plan (the project description, presumably?) that the city attorney did not recognize as deeply problematic because it involved the unlawful removal of headstones and alteration of the landscape? And Johnson “voted against it because I was upset no one had called it out to us sooner — something to that effect.”

NO, SIR. Here’s the quote from city council minutes of 3 November 1994:

“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.”

This is wrong in so many ways. It is patently false that no one called out conditions at Vick prior to 1994. The community complained about Vick from its earliest years. The county health department condemned it in the 1950s. It reverted to woodland in the 1960s. Via newspaper accounts, I can document efforts by citizens in 1983, 1989, 1990, 1991, and 1993 to get city council to act. But why would Johnson place the burden on families to clean up their own graves or demand adequate public care for a public cemetery that has been the city’s responsibility since 1913? Did Maplewood families have to demand care to get it? The arrogance of this 25 year-old to “send a message” to people whose loved ones’ graves had been disregarded and disrespected for decades. And we now have a 50-something year-old, still sitting in that same council seat, who thinks his “qualification” of his vote absolves him of something. The vote is not the problem. It’s the high-handed moralizing and refusal even now to recognize the impact of his words.

(E) I have found evidence of one meeting, which took place in April 1995 at B.O. Barnes Elementary — after the city had already awarded the contract to remove the headstones and grade the land, and the work had begun. I have requested documents that show what took place at these meetings, but the City has none. I’ve also requested records that document the discussion around the central monument, but, per the City, none exist.

(F) There had already been 80+ years of neglect by time council acted in 1994. And “malice” is not the point.

(G) “Everything had good intentions in 1996.” Intention vs. impact. Whatever the intentions may have been, the impact was the effective loss of a cemetery. “Everyone was satisfied.” Satisfied with what?? Even if people — not knowing these actions violated state law — were satisfied with the plan to remove the headstones temporarily, clean up the cemetery, and put the markers back, who was satisfied to have these headstones destroyed? Who was satisfied to have enormous steel power poles stabbed into the graves of loved ones? Johnson completely skirts these atrocities.

“We didn’t know graves extended out, maybe to the road.” First of all, any Black person over the age of 50 could have told him that in 1994. But now council does know, and what are they doing about it?

(H) “We didn’t have anybody on staff who knew to deal with the cemetery and what was involved.”

(I) “Everything was done to treat those people that are buried there with respect. Everybody thought it was respectful for the past 25 to 28 years. I don’t know what’s changed.” Per (H), the City took action without proper understanding and guidance. Destroying headstones and running power lines through cemeteries is not respectful.

What’s changed is we now know better, and we are demanding that the City do better.

(J) “Johnson worries that any solution the City Council proposes now won’t satisfy the public.” Unless Council changes course and demonstrates a collective willingness to engage transparently with the descendant community (or the broader community — this is not just a District 1 issue) about Vick Cemetery’s future, I get his worry.


Lane Street Project: District 2 candidates speak on Vick Cemetery.

Donta Chestnut is challenging Michael S. Bell for Wilson’s District 2 city council seat.

As reported by the Wilson Times on 16 October 2023 in its series focusing on candidates, Chestnut’s position on Vick Cemetery:

Rev. Bell did not speak on the subject in his Times interview.

Lane Street Project: District 1 candidates speak on Vick Cemetery.

Three candidates are challenging Gillettia Morgan for Wilson’s District 1 city council seat.

We examined Morgan’s views on Vick Cemetery here. As reported by the Wilson Times on , at a recent candidate forum held at Wilson County Public Library, when asked about the issue,

Per Ricardo Dew:

In a feature published October 2, Dew spoke in greater depth:

Re Kahmahl “Melo” Simmons:

In a feature published October 9, Simmons spoke in greater depth:

Kaden LeBray was not present at the forum. However, in a feature published October 5, LeBray said:

Lane Street Project: Vick Cemetery Update, 12 October 2023.

Lane Street Project is inviting you to a scheduled Zoom meeting.

Topic: Vick Cemetery Update
Time: Oct 12, 2023 06:30 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)

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Lane Street Project: Rocky Mount’s Unity Cemetery.

Let’s circle on back around to Rocky Mount.

This “Unity Cemetery Update,” which can be found at the city-hosted website,, issued from the City Manager’s office. It offers a model for progressive, responsive governance.

There’s a brief history and significance of the cemetery.

On the next page, which is oddly titled, we learn that Rocky Mount does not own Unity Cemetery. It is a private cemetery that may (or may not) be regarded under the law as abandoned. They estimate that it holds one thousand plots per each of its 18 acres. At present, descendants are responsible for maintenance of plots. (Thus, Unity is more like Odd Fellows and Rountree than Vick, which has always been a publicly owned space.)

The next slide details the City of Rocky Mount’s previous work to restore Unity.

Then, highlights of anticipated steps needed to clarify past and establish future ownership of the cemetery.

And a multi-part recommendation for actions to be carried out over the next several years. When the City of Wilson gets to point of creating a plan for Vick Cemetery — and I am speaking this into existence — Unity’s model could offer ideas worth exploring or emulating.

Obviously, Unity is in a very different position than Vick, which needs no title searches, hand thinning, or road repair, but I am awestruck by the difference generous funding could make for Wilson’s historic African-American cemetery.

Lane Street Project: the New York Times on “the decay, destruction and desecration plaguing many of America’s Black cemeteries.”

Last week, The New York Times shined its powerful spotlight on three African-American cemeteries and the women fighting to save them.

“Three Black women, shocked by the condition of cemeteries in Washington, Georgia and Texas, have turned their anger into action. None have prior experience in historic preservation, landscape architecture or design. But like many others working to save Black cemeteries, they view the work as a sacred trust and payment of a debt to ancestors who led the way.

As disheartening as the details of these cemeteries are — Vick is not the only graveyard ravished by a utility company — I am encouraged by the increasing attention paid to their plights and the knowledge that Lane Street Project is not alone in its struggle. Or its dreams. “I don’t want to keep trying to save the land,” said Lisa Fager, who fights for Washington, D.C.’s Mount Zion-Female Union Band Society cemeteries, “I want to save the people and their stories.”

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.