Forgotten graveyard tells story of race and family

jwise@newsobserver.comJuly 5, 2014 

— A couple of years ago, a maintenance crew was clearing some overgrown vines along a fence on the east side of Maplewood Cemetery. When one section was cleared enough to see through, what they saw in the woods beyond was a surprise.

Headstones. In a cemetery neither they, nor city Cemeteries Administrator Cedar Glasgow, had any idea was there. Neither did they have any idea they were opening a new chapter in an almost-forgotten story of Durham.

“It’s an interesting story of a family,” Glasgow said. Moreover, it’s the story of a family that crossed and blurred the conventionally hard and fast line between white and black.

And part of it came to light thanks to the school assignment of a 6-year-old boy.

‘Historic people’

When she learned about the mystery headstones, Glasgow said: “It prompted a question on my part. I was just concerned, maybe the stones had been misplaced or relocated for some purpose.”

The name on one headstone was Rev. Wesley Henderson; on the other, Mr. and Mrs. F.M. Jones. Glasgow called in a friend, Estelle Clark, who describes herself as a professional “family historian,” and the two of them spent several months researching just who these people might have been.

Mrs. F.M. Jones, Clark found, was Wesley Henderson’s sister Jane, and they were children of Dempsey and Emma Henderson, both born in the 1820s. The 1870 U.S. Census shows Dempsey as a cook, Emma as “keeping house,” they and all their household designated “M” – mulatto, of mixed race – except for a 9-year-old child designated “B” – black.

“These,” Clark said, “were historic people.”

Personal history

Meanwhile, last school year, Durham first-grader Nasir Henderson’s teacher gave her class an assignment.

“Everyone had to come up with something interesting ... personal about Durham’s history,” said Asselah Amin, Nasir’s grandmother.

When Nasir told his mother, Kathryn Henderson, what he had to do, she remembered her mother had told her that, long ago, their family owned land in the West End area of town, including some that became part of Maplewood Cemetery.

Moreover, Amin had told her about going with her father and grandfather, when she was about 7 years old, into an overgrown cemetery on the side of a hill, looking for the grave of her grandmother, Tazzie Henderson.

They never found Tazzie among the overgrown graves, but after dropping Nasir at school one morning, Kathryn Henderson went to look for herself. She met an elderly Maplewood caretaker, asked if he knew of any Henderson graves, and it just happened that he, maybe alone among the city’s cemetery staff, knew of the headstones outside the fence and showed Kathryn where they were.

“She jumped the fence and looked around,” Amin said; then went to see Cedar Glasgow, who immediately called Clark, and two sides of one story began coming together.

Blurred lines

Clark had found no indication whether Dempsey and Emma Henderson were born free or slave. Their first appearance on local records is the 1870 census, which shows Dempsey working as a cook, and owning land valued at $600 – making him, Clark said, one of the first nonwhite landowners in the Durham Township of what was then still part of Orange County.

Dempsey Henderson, Clark found, had contracted to buy 93 acres – including much of the future Maplewood – from Robert Morris. Morris is a seminal figure in Durham history, for he, his son and a partner were the first smoking tobacco manufacturers in what was at the time, 1858, the village of Durham’s Station.

Morris may have been Dempsey’s employer, as Morris was a hotel owner among his other ventures, and the 1880 census lists Dempsey as a “cook at a hotel.” Clark could not find the original contract, but she found the 1874 deed from Morris’s heirs giving Dempsey and Emma title to the acreage.

In 1882, Dempsey sold an acre of his land to a “colored school committee,” a member of which was his son Turner. Curiously, according to Clark’s research, an 1886 directory shows Dempsey as “colored,” but his son Wesley has no race identification – meaning that the directory editors considered him white.

The 1898 Durham city directory, though, lists Wesley as “colored,” like the other Hendersons descended from Dempsey and Emma.

Amin said her grandfather, Turner Henderson Jr., was white and a photograph shows him with light skin, straight hair and a prominent nose. “Almost a Roman nose,” Clark said. In other family photos, Turner’s wife, Tazzie, and son, Joe, could be either white or black.

Joe Henderson was Amin’s father; Amin said her mother was “100 percent black; Kathryn, her daughter, “has got really white skin.

“She says, ‘You’re not very black, Mom,’” Amin said. “I tell her, ‘We’ve all got a little bit of something.”

Family traditions

Race, as concerning their forebears, was a taboo subject, Amin found when she asked questions as a child.

However, Amin did hear a tradition that “the Henderson men had a strong liking for people of color.

“They liked the food, they liked the music, they liked the juke joints,” she said. “They liked the good times and they liked pretty women and they were partial, so they came to this (black) part of town.”

Fallen sections of a wrought-iron fence remain in the Henderson cemetery, likely having once marked off the family plots. But Clark said the recently unearthed headstone of Turner Henderson Sr., Dempsey and Emma’s son and Amin’s great-grandfather, would have stood outside the fence – perhaps indicating some rift in the family, perhaps having to do with race, perhaps a subject the Hendersons left unspoken.

“There was a shroud and I think it was because they were white and people just didn’t want to talk about it,” Amin said. “Weird.”

The Hendersons did, though, talk about the family once owning a lot of land in what was a predominantly black part of Durham, and owning it no longer, Amin said. Once Dempsey decided on a place for the family cemetery, Amin said, he began selling burial plots to others for $1 each.

“He was a little businessman,” she said.

Clark found death certificates for more than 80 other, unrelated, people, on the same forgotten property outside the Maplewood fence.

Those are now listed on the Durham County Cemetery Survey ( bit.ly/1k8gTAf), which describes their resting place as “covered by lots of old growth vegetation, fallen trees and english ivy.” Most of the graves are marked only by depressions in the ground.

“There’s a lot of people over in here,” Amin said. “Nobody knows where they are, nobody knows who they are, unless you can get up in there and find some tombstones maybe, some markers.”

Clearances

The Henderson cemetery lies outside the Maplewood fence, but it is city property. Over time, parts of the original 93 acres were inherited and sold as most of Dempsey and Emma’s descendants left Durham. In 1935 and 1937, Amin’s grandfather sold the last remaining tracts to the city – stipulating that, should it become necessary, those buried there would be respectfully relocated.

“For some reason, the city opted not to do that,” Glasgow, the cemetery administrator, said. “I’m thinking (the city) probably just purchased the property to serve as a buffer between Maplewood and the surrounding area.”

In the racially segregated 1930s, Maplewood was Durham’s white public cemetery, and maybe for that reason the Henderson property was never enclosed. In time, Glasgow said, the Hendersons “sort of lost touch” with the cemetery.

“You know, when life starts to move forward you forget about those things sometimes,” she said.

The city, though it owned the land, apparently “lost touch” and forgot “about those things” as well.

“My intent,” Clark said, “is to let people know this is there and who these people were. “Dempsey and Emma ... deserve to be respected and honored.

“When it was sold to the city, it was clear it was a black cemetery. That deserves to be respected,” Clark said. “It’s just got to be made right.”

‘Just great’

Now, city has installed a gate to ease access to the Henderson plots, and sprayed to kill off the lush vegetation near them so that it’s easier for family members to explore and recover what was overgrown.

“I can really see the effort here, because all this area was vines and green,” Amin said.

Glasgow said her maintenance staff will be clearing out the dead vines and underbrush before long, and she wants to “figure out how we could possibly manage” more cleanup and eventually incorporate the Henderson plots into the rest of Maplewood.

“Of course, our budget is funded through the city so we have some limitations to resources,” she said.

By the way – Nasir Henderson’s school projected turned out “just great,” his grandmother said. “His teachers were fascinated by it. His chest was stuck out a mile.”

Wise: 919-641-5895

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