Retired judge Stanley Peele sat alone in the cemetery gazebo and watched workers unload the granite marker.
“I’d been thinking about it a long time,” said Peele, 83. “I worried about it for years.”
In Arlington National Cemetery, he said, a soldier walks back and forth 365 days a year to honor the 14,000 veterans, some from the Civil War, who are buried there.
“Well here are 361 people,” Peel continued, looking out through black-rimmed glasses onto the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery grounds.
“And they’ve been forgotten.”
On Thursday, the Chapel Hill Cemeteries Advisory Board did its part to remember.
The names disappeared long ago, but ground-penetrating radar a few years ago found 475 unmarked graves, 361 of them in the two sections of the cemetery where slaves and free people of color were buried.
The radar detected where the soil had been disturbed, the last clue to burials in many cases. Some of the graves may have once had a wooden marker; some of the dead were likely so poor they were buried without a coffin.
“There are no records,” cemeteries board Chairman Steve Moore said. “They’re unmarked and unknown.”
But on a gray, misty morning, beneath the bony branches of a giant oak, a lasting memorial was set in place.
“Here rest in honored glory 361 American persons of color known but to God.”
Peele, who served on the bench for 47 years, proposed the inscriptions that now greet visitors to the cemetery at South and Country Club roads on the UNC campus. He based them on the words found on the back of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington.
He contacted the cemeteries board last year because he wanted students and others who have protested against Silent Sam, Saunders Hall and other causes to have something positive to rally around.
That didn’t happen Thursday.
There were no students, no speeches, no ceremony at all.
“But I haven’t given up on there being one in the future,” he said.
The Old Chapel Hill Cemetery has nearly 1,700 graves, incuding those of some of the college town’s best-known names: band leader Kay Kyser, broadcaster Charles Kuralt, university president Frank Porter Graham. A small sign marks Dean Smith’s grave, as the basketball coach and humanitarian’s plot awaits a formal headstone.
The stone for the new marker came from Elberton, Georgia, “the granite capital,” said Greg Campbell, owner of Chatham Monument Co. of Siler City.
On Thursday, workers gently guided the base and tablet as a hoist lifted them from the truck onto the mossy earth.
They checked levels. They spread and trimmed grout. They watered it down and scrubbed the face until the light gray stone turned charcoal, the words an even darker hue.
Peele knows some of the folks buried in the old cemetery — “piles of them,” he said — and adds that some even appeared in his courtroom.
He doesn’t know, because no one can, those who lie in these sections.
It doesn’t matter.
“I had thought something should be done for years,” he said.
“It’s like, every once in a while, we can make up for the way we treated folks.”
Tour the cemetery
You can use your cell phone to tour the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery.
Preservation Chapel Hill developed a virtual tour of town attractions with the Chapel Hill-Orange County Visitors Bureau.
A map of tour stops, photographs and audio are available on the Explore Chapel Hill website (nando.com/ot), or you can call 919-428-2006 to hear an audio tour.
Tour brochures are available at the Horace Williams House, 610 E. Rosemary St.; the Chapel Hill-Orange County Visitors Center, 501 W. Franklin St.; and at nando.com/ou.