A historical marker in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery should honor slaves and free people of color but also preserve their stories for future generations, members of a community roundtable said Tuesday.
The Rev. Robert Campbell has been talking since April with residents and relatives of those buried in the cemetery’s historically black section about how to best identify and recognize those ancestors.
The meetings grew out of concerns about a marker the town’s Cemeteries Advisory Board installed in the town-owned cemetery on UNC’s campus with little ceremony Feb. 4 and removed Feb. 29.
Its inscription read: “Here rest in honored glory 361 American persons of color known but to God,” based on the words on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington, Virginia.
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“I think we all had the consensus that it was not so much the wording that was on the monument, but the lack of community involvement,” Campbell said.
He and others brought several suggestions to Tuesday’s meeting at the Hargraves Center for guiding the community forward together.
“I don’t know how a lot of other people look at it, but I look at it as an opportunity for us to be a little bit more creative,” he said, and “to educate our community on the past history and the contributions that have been made by people of Afro-American descent, as well as people of color.”
A paved path and two low, rock walls separate the cemetery’s western-most, black section – first used in 1853 – from the older, whites-only section dating to 1798. Simple wooden crosses and stones that once marked most African-American graves have been lost to time and damage. Other markers still have names on them, Campbell said.
The town commissioned a study using ground-penetrating radar in recent years to map the graves; 465 were found in the black section, including some who may have been American Indians and poor whites.
Linda Convissor, UNC’s director of community relations, suggested making their names more accessible to visitors.
“In a way, I was struck more deeply by reading the names and realizing how those are (last) names of people I know who live here,” she said.
The group also discussed adding four information tables to the cemetery, with a timeline of its history, the reasons for installing a marker and details about who is buried there.
The cemetery captures in many ways the history of the community and the university, UNC historian Cecelia Moore said, from former UNC President Bill Friday to the enslaved African-Americans who worked there.
But it is also important, Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP President Jesse Gibson said, that those stories reflect the true history of slaves who built the university and the lives of African-Americans who lived in Chapel Hill years after the Civil War.
The council could approve a new marker and other amenities in June, Mayor Pam Hemminger said. The tentative date for holding a commemorative service is Sunday, Sept. 18.
The timing is meant to give everyone a chance to be involved, officials said. They plan to reach out to local groups for help, including churches, town departments and UNC students.
The new marker and tables could cost up to $2,000 each, town Parks and Recreation Director Jim Orr said. The company that created the earlier marker can shave the inscription off and add a decorative plate to the stone’s surface, he said, or it could start fresh with a different stone.
The new marker could take two to three months to complete, he said, and the information tables could take three to four months. Campbell suggested adding tables that could be easily updated with new information in the future.
Alternate inscriptions suggested for the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery marker include:
▪ “Thus we, like birds, retreat/To groves, and hide from ev’ry eye/Our slumb’ring dust will rise and meet/its morning in the sky.” – George Moses Horton, a former slave who sold his poems to UNC students and became the first African-American poet published in the South
▪ “Acknowledgement of the known and unknown African-American and persons of color, bondsmen and freemen, that in their service and creative work that contributed to this great university, may they at last rest in peace until we meet again.” – the Rev. Robert Campbell
▪ “In reverence and in memory of the enslaved people of color who founded, built and maintained the university. They will no longer be forgotten.” – Allen Buansi, Chapel Hill resident
▪ “This monument and section of the cemetery commemorate and celebrate the ancestorial history of African American men and women, as well as other people of color. They labored under slavery and the Jim Crow era to help build the enduring and famous University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.” – Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP President Jesse Gibson
▪ “In our death the flame of oppression extinguish, but not the light of our creative work given, nor the fire of commitment to freedom, even in our rest we speak hope to our community.” – the Rev. Robert Campbell