(pictured above: Volunteers work at Happy Hill Cemetery last Thursday.)
More than five dozen Mormon teenagers aided in the arduous task of reverting a historic African American graveyard to some semblance of its former self.
As part of a three-day youth summit that brought together young people from several Winston-Salem area Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints congregations (or wards), a team of volunteers arrived last Thursday morning at Happy Hill Cemetery ready to work – their truckload of rakes, shovels, hoes, garden clippers and weed eaters made that abundantly clear.
“Service is a big part of our faith. It is what Christ did, so we try to follow his example,” said Chris Hiatt, one of several adult leaders who also took part.
Most large-scale Mormon youth gatherings have a community service component. Church leaders solicited proposals from local nonprofits and initiatives that needed a daylong infusion of volunteer helpers. Mrs. Maurice Pitts Johnson, who has made restoring the cemetery her mission, was over the moon when her project – Happy Hill Cemetery Friends – was selected. (A restoration project at another area cemetery was also picked. An equal number of teen volunteers worked there as well last Thursday).
“I am thrilled to get this many people here,” said Pitts-Johnson, whose grandfather and grandmother, Columbus Christopher Pitts and Alice Simmons Pitts, are among the estimated 113 interred at Happy Hill Cemetery.
There has been an ebb and flow of volunteers since she launched the restoration effort in 2010. The men of nearby Rising Ebenezer Baptist Church regularly cut the grass and hew overgrown foliage, but such efforts are quickly made futile by Mother Nature.
“Every time we get it looking good, there is new growth,” Pitts-Johnson said.
So, she is always seeking volunteers, including the loved ones of those buried at the cemetery, and help from professionals like Jason Bridges, whose Weedman Lawn Care sprayed the cemetery, at no charge, to kill poison ivy prior to the teens’ arrival.
As the volunteers raked, weeded and chopped grass, leaves and bushes and freed headstones gobbled up by the earth, 75-year-old Earl Byers watched from a shaded perch, reminiscing with other neighborhood old-timers about days of yore.
As a child, Byers watched as his father dug graves at the cemetery before burials.
“Funerals were a big deal back then; everyone came out of their house to watch,” he said.
Happy Hill is the city’s oldest black community, founded in the 19th century by former slaves from the nearby Moravian community of Salem. Byers said the Happy Hill he knew ceased to exist by the mid 1960s, when construction of U.S. 52 and hundreds of public housing units either displaced or disgusted many longtime residents. He attributes the decline of the cemetery, which has not been used as a burial site since the 1940s, to the absence of those who had called the community home for generations.
“People used to come and take care of their peoples’ graves … but everybody left,” he said.
As a deacon at Rising Ebenezer, Byers helps with restoration efforts each month. Great progress has been made, he said. Before Pitts-Johnson – whose grandfather was one of old Happy Hill’s architects – started the project, the area was unrecognizable as a cemetery. Byers said the turnaround is nothing short of a miracle. Pizairia Warren agrees.
A former resident of Happy Hill Gardens, the now defunct tenement public housing community, Warren returned as one of the young Mormon volunteers.
“It looks way better than it used to when I was a kid,” she said.
Warren was happy to lend a hand to the effort. The Mormon Church’s commitment to community service is one of the things she likes best about the faith, which she joined about two years ago.
“It’s all about selfless service. We truly believe we can make our community a better place through service,” said Warren, who is also involved in a church crocheting project that provides items for the elderly and the homeless.
Pitts-Johnson is optimistic about the cemetery’s future – though guardedly so. A multi-million dollar U.S. 52 expansion project abuts the graveyard, so closely that a fence erected by volunteers was removed by highway workers. Pitts-Johnson said she has received assurances that the highway project won’t disrupt the restoration further.
Beautifying the cemetery is only part of the goals of Happy Hill Cemetery Friends. There is no complete list of names of those buried there and it has been a struggle to locate the kin of those who rest there who are known.
“We really want to locate families,” said Pitts-Johnson, who organizes nearly weekly volunteer clean-up sessions.
For more information about the cemetery, restoration or to volunteer, call or email Pitts-Johnson at 336-978-2866 or firstname.lastname@example.org.