Happy Hill Cemetery cleanup continues after storm wreaks havoc

Maurice Pitts Johnson has been leading cleanup efforts at Happy Hill Cemetery for years.

Happy Hill Cemetery cleanup continues after storm wreaks havoc
May 26
09:15 2016

Photo by Todd Luck



Cleanup efforts continue at the historic Happy Hill Cemetery after a recent storm hit the area hard.

The Happy Hill Cemetery Friends has been working for the last seven years to clean up the cemetery that had been in disrepair for decades. The old cemetery is located at the corner of Willow and Pitts Street, with a lower section that’s now covered in forest off Free Street. Weeds that at times were taller than the people clearing them, have been cut out of the upper portion of it, revealing many graves that now bear flowers from loved ones and flags honoring veterans. But a recent storm has left large parts of trees littering the cemetery.

On Saturday, it was just Maurice Pitts Johnson, who started the clean-up efforts, and volunteer David Gall clearing the debris. Gall picked up smaller branches and used a hack saw to cut some of the larger ones into pieces he could carry. Neither owns a chainsaw that was needed to cut the largest branches. Since it’s private property, the city can’t clean it up, but can pick up branches left on the side of the road, which formed a large five-foot tall pile at the cemetery’s edge.

Johnson said the amount of help varies during the cleanups held twice a month. Sometimes it’s just her and Gall who come out.

“We’ve had some groups to come out and help us from time to time, but it’s not a steady flow of volunteers,” said Johnson.

Gall, a member of Preserve Historic Forsyth, said Johnson came to one of the group’s meetings seven years ago looking for volunteers to help with the cleanup. He said he’s been volunteering ever since.

“I just felt like it was a worthy project,” said Gall, who is an architect whose projects often involve historic preservation. “I came out here the first time and saw how much work there was to do and we’ve been persistent ever since, clearing the cemetery and making it presentable.”

Over the years, they’ve had many volunteers and groups to help, including Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Clemmons, the Winston-Salem Jaycees, the Liberian Organization of the Piedmont, and Wake Forest University history students. The nearby Rising Ebenezer Baptist Church has been active in the cleanup and one of its members regularly mows the cemetery. Johnson is currently working with the Wake Forest Community and Business Law Clinic to change ownership of the land to Rising Ebenizer, which has entailed a long legal process since the churches that originally owned the property no longer exist.

Johnson’s grandparents, Columbus and Alice Pitts, and great-grandmother, Matilda Simmons, are buried there. Columbus Pitts was an early land owner in Happy Hill, who the nearby Pitts Street is named after. She said she was inspired to begin cleaning up the cemetery when she tried to take her grandson to the cemetery, but found the weeds hid her grandparent’s grave marker.

“I wanted to show my grandson where it was and it was so overgrown I couldn’t find it,” she said.

The oldest grave in the cemetery found so far is that of Jerry Swepson who was buried in 1901. The cemetery is believed to have more than 113 people buried there. There were more than that before 1965, when construction of U.S. 52 cut through the cemetery, causing graves to be moved to a cemetery in Walkertown near Oak Grove Baptist Church.

The next cleanup is this Saturday, May 28, at 9:30 a.m. Regular cleanups are the second and fourth Saturday of each month at 9:30 a.m. Volunteers are encouraged to bring gloves, chainsaws and other yard tools.

For more information, contact Maurice Pitts Johnson at 336- 815-8417.

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Todd Luck

Todd Luck

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