Town leaders asked workers Monday to remove the granite marker installed Feb. 4 to honor 361 slaves and free people of color buried in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery.
Only a small, rectangular patch of dirt remained at the site by nightfall.
“The marker idea is a fabulous idea to do something there to commemorate and honor those people that are buried there,” Mayor Pam Hemminger said. “The wording was seen as offensive to some, and it didn’t go through a community process to describe what we should do there.”
Retired Judge Stanley Peele had proposed the marker’s inscription, using the words on the back of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery as a model:
“Here rest in honored glory 361 American persons of color known but to God.”
The town received numerous emails and phone calls critical of the marker from UNC students, residents, and members of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP and the Historic Preservation Society, Hemminger said. The marker was placed in the town-owned cemetery on UNC’s campus without a formal community dedication. The town paid $1,875 to order and install the marker, council member Maria Palmer said.
“I guess the term ‘people of color’ and the fact that there are all kinds of people buried there,” Hemminger said. “They didn’t feel like it honored the souls there. They felt like it described but didn’t honor.”
The decision was made public Monday afternoon in an email from Town Manager Roger Stancil to Town Council members.
“While we appreciate the work of the Cemetery Advisory Board in initiating this effort, and the work of Judge (Stanley) Peele in writing the inscription on the marker, we believe this is a bigger community issue that requires involvement of other community stakeholders,” Stancil said in the email.
The town will store the marker for now, Hemminger said. It will be returned to the cemetery at a later date and with a new inscription, she said.
“The cemetery group was very well-intentioned, great idea; (they) just needed to run it through a process,” she said.
Peele, a retired judge, got the town’s Cemeteries Advisory Board to approve the marker at its Dec. 9 meeting. Four Parks and Recreation staff members attended the meeting, including director Jim Orr. Town Council member Maria Palmer, who serves as a liaison to the board, also was there.
Palmer mentioned news coverage about the marker at the council’s Feb. 22 meeting. She asked Stancil to work with Parks and Recreation staff, the NAACP, UNC and others “to commemorate that history and propose things that we can do as a town to sensitively explain that history.”
“The criticism in part is that there was nobody present when the monument was put in place. It was simply a delivery,” Palmer said.
She did not intend to have the marker removed, Palmer said Monday, but to calm the community furor around its installation. She was charged with contacting the NAACP about the board’s decision to install the marker, she said, and feels “horrible” that she forgot to do that.
“My petition was that it would be left there, and that we would have a nice dedication and work to do some interpretive work,” she said.
The news upset Peele, 83, when he heard about the decision Monday afternoon.
The decision itself also is puzzling, he said, adding that he planned to seek more information about what happened.
“It just seems crazy. I don’t want fly completely off the handle, but it just doesn’t seem right at all,” he said.
The marker was meant to honor and remember the cemetery’s unnamed dead, he said, but also to give students and others who have protested Silent Sam and other UNC landmarks something positive to rally around.
The Old Chapel Hill Cemetery has nearly 1,700 graves, incuding those of some of the college town's best-known names: band leader Kay Kyser, broadcaster Charles Kuralt, university president Frank Porter Graham.
The town used ground-penetrating radar over the last few years to find 475 unmarked graves, 361 in the two sections of the cemetery where slaves and free people of color were buried. Some graves may have once had a wooden marker; some buried there may have been too poor even for a coffin.