Many of the streets and institutions in downtown Raleigh have something in common – they owe their names to people who now rest in the historic City Cemetery.
A crowd estimated at 111 people by Raleigh City Cemeteries Preservation and the Wake County Historical Society came Monday to the annual Labor Day tour to learn more about the city’s oldest public cemetery and the people who are buried there. They visited the grave sites of men such as William Peace and Thomas Meredith, who helped build up Raleigh before the Civil War and who gave their names to what are now William Peace University and Meredith College.
“Joel Lane is here, the gentleman that sold the land that would become Raleigh to the State of North Carolina,” said Darrow Johnson of Raleigh, who attended Monday’s tour. “The Peaces’ and the Merediths’ and the Johnsons’ – all of the prominent families in Raleigh’s early history are here.
“It’s an important place, and I’m so glad that they’re doing the work to preserve it.”
Preserving City Cemetery, which was established by the General Assembly in 1798, isn’t easy. Time and natural calamities such as the tornado that rolled through Raleigh in 2011 have taken their toll on the cemetery, located on 7.68 acres at East and Hargett Streets and New Bern Avenue.
The need for donations was repeatedly mentioned Monday by amateur historian Betsy Shaw, 83, who led her 38th consecutive Labor Day tour of City Cemetery.
“Nobody else is crazy enough to do it,” said Shaw, who has been leading the Labor Day tours since the late 1970s and still plans to do so again next year. “I enjoy dong it. This is my hobby.”
Shaw, whose grandfather was superintendent of the cemetery around 1910, has made it her life’s mission to educate people about City Cemetery and to preserve the hallowed ground. In 1979, she walked through the cemetery with a tape recorder reading off all the dates on the tombstones to help establish what would become the cemetery’s database.
Her work helped lay the groundwork for City Cemetery to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.
Of all those buried at the cemetery, Shaw’s favorite grave site belongs to Anna Julia Cooper, who was born a slave in 1858 and by the time of her death in 1964 had become an African-American educator, civil-rights advocate and feminist. In 2009, Cooper was featured on the U.S. Postal Service’s Black Heritage stamp series.
Shaw told Monday’s attendees about a note she received from a Peace student who had attended one of her cemetery tours. Shaw said the student wrote that hearing about Cooper had changed her life.
“I said, ‘Anna Julia has reached one of those students,’” Shaw said.
Ray Hinnant, president of the Wake County Historical Society, said Monday’s turnout was the most they’ve ever had for a Labor Day tour. He said that events such as Monday’s tour are so important to raise public awareness of City Cemetery.
“Everybody, when they think of Raleigh cemeteries, they automatically think of Oakwood (Cemetery),” Hinnant said. “Well, this cemetery is a lot older than Oakwood.”
Go to http://rccpreservation.org/city-cemetery/ to learn more about Raleigh City Cemetery, including ongoing preservation efforts.