I am a sociologist who likes to visit cemeteries. Social inequalities are memorialized in them, set in stone.
Last summer I visited the old UNC-Chapel Hill cemetery. It was disturbing to see the segregated section of the cemetery, the section where slaves and their descendants were buried in unmarked graves. It was disturbing to know that for a time people parked cars on top of the graves. Actually, what I saw looked more like an unpaved parking lot than part of a cemetery.
No doubt Judge Peele meant well when he asked for a small monument to mark this area, had it inscribed, approved by the Cemeteries Advisory Board, and put in place but without involving the NAACP, students or faculty. Now, because of objections, it has been removed, perhaps temporarily.
Judge Peele saw his monument to the slaves as somehow a balance to Silent Sam, the huge campus monument extolling the UNC students who fought in the Civil War. Despite the traditional Southern denial, there is no doubt that the war was started by the South to preserve the slave labor system. Whatever individual soldiers may have done, a war to preserve slavery is a dishonorable war and letting the monument stand without any rebuttal to what is says and what it represents is a disgrace. Of course, last year the Republican-controlled legislature in this state made it illegal to alter or remove Confederate monuments. This past summer, inspired Klan-type people rallied on the campus at the monument making speeches and waving Confederate flags.
Would a small monument in the slave section of the UNC cemetery help matters? It would not change much.
The day I visited the cemetery I learned that the individual graves had been located several years ago using ground radar, yet they were still unmarked. Why? The next day it struck me that the graveyard is an excellent historic memorial just as it is, shabby, and neglected. It was a disgrace from the beginning and so it is today.
I would encourage people to see it. When I was there I imagined how the slaves must have felt when their kin were buried in unmarked graves and what they thought when they realized that this would be their fate too. They would have seen the white section of course with its fine family plots and tombstones. I also imagined what some of the slave owners must have felt when they buried slaves in the slave section knowing that some of them were their own kin. This forlorn place brings William Faulkner’s quote to mind: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”
Jerry Carr lives in Chapel Hill.