Restoring black cemeteries gains attention

Photo by Todd Luck

Restoring black cemeteries gains attention
September 28
05:00 2017

The challenges of restoring African-American cemeteries that have fallen into disrepair was discussed at a program at Delta Arts Center last Thursday.

The New Winston Museum presented the “Reclaimed Cemeteries” panel moderated by University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA) Professor Rosemary Millar. Three restoration leaders discussed their efforts to clean up the cemeteries where their loved ones are buried. In all three cases, it’d been decades since the cemeteries had been cared for, allowing them to become overgrown to the point it’s a challenge to even find the grave markers.

“For a long time people would drive down Shorefair Drive and because it was so overgrown and the trees were so large, they didn’t realize it was a cemetery,” said Deltra Bonner about the Odd Fellows Cemetery.

The cemetery was started in 1911 by Twin City Lodge and Winston Star Lodge, who haven’t maintained it since the 1950s. Now Friends of Odd Fellows Cemetery has worked hard to reclaim the cemetery from the wilderness, clearing large portions of it. The large cemetery has nearly 10,000 graves, including the resting place of Winston Mutual founder George Hill Sr. and Tuskegee Airman Lt. Spurgeon Ellington.

Maurice Pitts Johnson talked about her efforts to restore the Happy Hill Cemetery on the corner of Willow and Pitts streets. The cemetery was started by the trustees of local churches in 1886 for the residents of the historically black Happy Hill community. Those churches no longer exist, so it fell into disrepair, but now thanks to restoration efforts Johnson started, Rising Ebenezer Baptist Church owns the land. Volunteer cleanups are held there every second and fourth Saturday mornings of the month. She’s always hoping to recruit more volunteers for the effort.

“We need some help,” said Johnson, whose grandfather, Columbus Pitts, is among those buried there.

Maxine Johnson talked about her efforts to restore Brooks Cemetery in Kernersville. Her grandfather purchased the land for it in 1907 for $12 to start a black cemetery. He didn’t charge for burial plots and there are approximately 200 gravesite there, with room for 75 more burial spaces. She said that she began the clean-up effort after seeing how overgrown the resting place of her family had become.

“And I thought ‘What a disgrace’ because this was my foundation,” she said.

They all talked about the gratitude that they have to volunteers who are helping their ongoing efforts to clean up the cemeteries and identify the graves there. They’ve done innovate things to attract help like holding cook outs at Brooks Cemetery and offering money to find a particular grave at Odd Fellows.

The panel was part of a series New Winston Museum is doing on black history. The next part will be “Roots of the I.Q.: Innovation on Depot Street” on Oct. 19 at Goler Family Enrichment Center at 5:30 p.m. and then “Envisioning Columbian Heights” on Nov. 16 at a place that’ll be announced in the future.

Those interested in helping with the cleanups can call James Clyburn (Odd Fellows) at 336-723-6452, Maurice Pitts Johnson (Happy Hill) at 336-815-8417 and Maxine Johnson (Brooks Cemetery) at 336-407-1434.

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Todd Luck

Todd Luck

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