Cemetery's care is her mission

Betsy Johnson Shaw gives new life to ancient, weather-beaten tombstones that have lost the ability to tell their own stories.

Shaw's historic connection to Raleigh City Cemetery stretches back a century, when her grandfather was its superintendent. But the future of the city's oldest public cemetery, which stopped selling burial lots years ago, is linked to Shaw's diligent preservation efforts.

For the past 32 Labor Days, the 77-year-old amateur historian has led and narrated a walking tour of the historic burial ground, a final resting place for the veterans, lawmakers, ministers, newspapermen, socialites, merchants and slaves who helped build Raleigh.

The tours are based in large part on her own research as she sought to fill gaps created by a fire that destroyed deeds to plots, erasing the city's only record of its underground inhabitants. She recorded names, dates and inscriptions that were legible in the 1970s but have since eroded beyond recognition, or were later obliterated by toppled trees, or smashed by vandals.

Her curatorial dedication helped lay the groundwork for Raleigh City Cemetery, established in 1798, to be placed last year on the National Register of Historic Places.

"She's worked with the stones so much that she probably has the best single knowledge of what's there," said Charlie Blunt, a board member of the nonprofit Raleigh City Cemeteries Preservation. "She's definitely our link to the cemetery."

Several years ago, when the nonprofit preservation society was founded to restore all three of the city's public cemeteries, Shaw became involved and is now a board member and treasurer.

This Labor Day, narrating the annual tour for about two dozen visitors, Shaw mingled her own family stories with tales about the dead. Over there, she said, pointing to a mausoleum, her uncle played hide-and-seek. As a child, her mother cleared many of the plots of overgrown grass.

"My mother had a thing about going to the city cemetery every Saturday morning," Shaw said. "We came here on the city bus and put flowers on granddaddy's grave and then took the transfer to Oakwood Cemetery to put flowers on daddy's grave."

A generation later, Shaw frequented the cemetery, as well as many others, with her own children.

"If it was the hottest day in August, or a hot Sunday afternoon after church, my mom was down in the cemetery tracing gravesites with charcoal," said daughter Mary-Cassie Shaw, now a pediatrician in Raleigh. "Any time we'd go to a different town, we went and hit the cemeteries."

But Shaw's interests range widely. Her home contains a sizable collection of county histories, registers, maps and genealogies. Her personal library features sections on the Colonial era, Civil War and World War II. She recently traveled to China and plans a trip to Egypt next year.

Shaw's passion for the cemetery had competition -- from family, education and work. She had three children in the 1960s and returned to college to get a bachelor's degree in accounting from N.C. State University. Shaw attended classes with her son, graduated in 1983 at age 50, and passed the CPA exam the same day as her then-23-year-old son.

"She was older than some of the professors, but she really tried to blend in with the students there," said her son, Robert Shaw Jr. "She liked to sit up in the front in class and I would hang in the back, and most people didn't know we were related."

Shaw then spent more than two decades working as an accountant and didn't retire until 11 months ago, when she was in her mid-70s.

Among the statesmen, clergymen, governor and near-president buried in the cemetery, Shaw's favorite figure is Anna Julia Haywood Cooper, born into slavery in 1858, the daughter of a slave and her white master. Cooper was educated at St. Augustine's Normal School and Collegiate Institute in Raleigh, graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio and returned to Raleigh to teach math, Greek and Latin. Later, she moved to Washington and became an author, scholar, feminist and black rights advocate, eventually taking her Ph.D. in 1925 from the Sorbonne in France at age 65. This year, she was featured on a U.S. postage stamp.

Cooper rested in an unmarked grave until three decades ago, when Shaw contacted the St. Augustine's College alumni association about installing a plaque, which Shaw designed.

"I don't like graves to be unmarked, especially for very remarkable people," Shaw said.

In her research, Shaw has inadvertently unearthed clues to her own family history. The tombstones, for instance, revealed the whereabouts of family members she had lost track of.

"I found some, just doing the index, who I thought were alive and well," Shaw said.

She learned through her inquiries at the state archives that her great-great-grandfather was a Unionist during the Civil War who opposed secession. His farm was pillaged by Union soldiers who were convinced he was a Confederate sympathizer. The farm site today is the Historic Oak View County Park off Poole Road.

"Part of what Betsy's so good at is raising awareness of the heritage and history," said Jane Thurman, who heads the cemetery preservation group. "For us it's all about the stories and history of Raleigh."