Hidden behind towering trees and tucked between housing developments is a little-known cemetery where hundreds of people, many of them former slaves, are buried.
Enoch Holloway, pastor of Friendship Chapel Baptist Church, wants to make his congregation and the community aware of the rich history of the cemetery on the church’s property near South Main Street.
“It’s a tribute to our ancestors who gave their lives that we would be free today,” said Holloway, whose great-grandfather was a slave. “What we have gone through, the struggle to get to where we are today – we can’t forget it.”
Friendship Chapel, an African-American church founded in 1866, partnered with the Wake Forest Historical Association last year to apply for a $9,000 grant from the Jandy Ammons Foundation, a Raleigh group that aims to help communities. The money was used to hire New South Associates to perform non-invasive ground-penetrating radar on the cemetery site to determine the number of graves and their locations.
With the technology, radar sends signals into the ground that measure the amount of time before the signal bounces back, said J.W. Joseph, New South’s director of administration. The soil around a buried body or coffin is often softer than other soil because the ground has been disturbed, so it takes less time for the signal to bounce back.
New South Associates will use the information to develop a survey and online story map of the cemetery grounds, which date back to the 1880s or earlier, and the company will present its findings during a public forum May 21.
The Wake Forest Historical Association and Friendship Chapel plan to apply for another grant to build a historical marker for the cemetery. Eventually, they hope to have the cemetery designated as a historic site on the National Register of Historic Places.
Holloway said he worries that young people in his congregation and beyond have forgotten their ancestors’ history and do not appreciate their struggle for freedom. He hopes the cemetery will remind them and provide a place to visit and reflect.
“A wise man said that a people who forget where they have come from are destined to go back, so it’s so important for us, and for America, to not forget,” Holloway said.
Most of the graves in the roughly 2-acre cemetery are unmarked, distinguishable only by rocks or depressions in the earth. The markers that remain are weathered, some barely visible under sticks and weeds. Some have been knocked over or broken.
The words “Not lost blest thought but gone before, where we shall meet to part no more” are etched on a tombstone for Lucy, wife of Frank Carpenter. Another tombstone marks the resting place of Ida V. Thompson, who was born in 1878 and died at age 43.
A marker that has been broken in half simply reads, “Here mother lies.”
The history of the cemetery and Friendship Chapel reflects the history of slavery in Wake County.
In 1820, Dr. Calvin Jones bought a 615-acre farm in Wake Forest, which was home to Wake Forest University before it moved to Winston-Salem in 1956. The site is now the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Some farmers with small farms were too poor to own slaves, but several large plantations in the Wake Forest area relied on slave labor to plant and harvest crops, according to the Wake Forest Historical Museum.
Before they were freed, slaves in the area held secret worship services under a brush arbor on the cemetery grounds. Some were allowed to sit in the balcony during services at Forestville Baptist Church, a mostly white church less than half a mile away.
Washington Wingate, a founder of Forestville Baptist, helped Nelson Ligon start Friendship Chapel. Ligon had attended services at Forestville Baptist.
Ligon named the new church “Friendship” because of the joint effort, said Jennifer Smart, associate director of the Wake Forest Historical Museum. The cemetery land was sold to the church in 1881.
During the influenza pandemic of 1918, a mass grave was created at the cemetery to bury people killed by the flu. By the 1940s, the cemetery was full.
Holloway said the cemetery fell into disrepair after church members forgot about it over time. Occasionally they would clear away debris, he said, but for the most part the cemetery has remained untouched.
“It’s such an important local site,” Smart said. “It’s sacred ground.”
Madison Iszler: 919-836-4952; firstname.lastname@example.org