Chapel Hill News

Removing Chapel Hill marker to slaves, people of color adds to controversy

The Chapel Hill Cemeteries Advisory Board had the marker placed Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016, to honor 361 people of color buried in the cemetery without headstones and in some cases without coffins.
The Chapel Hill Cemeteries Advisory Board had the marker placed Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016, to honor 361 people of color buried in the cemetery without headstones and in some cases without coffins.

Retired judge Stanley Peele paused several times to regain his composure after learning a marker to 361 slaves and people of color had been removed from the town cemetery on UNC’s campus.

“It just seems crazy,” he said. “I don’t want to fly completely off the handle, but it just doesn’t seem right at all.”

The marker in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery was meant to honor and remember its unnamed dead, he said, as well as give those who have protested Silent Sam and other UNC landmarks something positive to rally around.

While many famous residents are buried in the cemetery’s nearly 1,700 graves, ground-penetrating radar in recent years found 475 more, unmarked graves; 361 of those in two sections set aside for slaves and free people of color.

Peele, 83, suggested an inscription based on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery:

“Here rest in honored glory 361 American persons of color known but to God.”

The marker was installed Feb. 4 without fanfare. UNC students, faculty, NAACP members and local preservationists have since questioned and criticized its inscription, approval and installation, and the time that has passed without a formal dedication.

Revision needed

The marker needs to be revised, said Cheri Szcodronski, executive director of Preservation Chapel Hill, because it uses the antiquated phrase “people of color” and only honors some people buried in the unmarked graves. Over 100 poor whites also may be buried there, she said.

Szcodronski is a liaison to the town’s Cemeteries Advisory Board, which approved the marker, but could not attend the board’s discussion. She only learned about the installation after a newspaper story about it.

“When I went over and looked at it, I didn’t feel like it fit the landscape very well for a National Register-listed cemetery,” she said. “I thought it kind of stuck out, and I was disappointed to see they used the Jim Crow-era language and they had still only included a portion of the unknown burials.”

Town Council member Maria Palmer also sits on the cemeteries board and took some responsibility this week for the “misunderstanding” about the marker’s installation. She had offered to contact the NAACP about a ceremony on the board’s behalf, she said, but forgot.

She asked town staff at a Feb. 22 council meeting to work with residents to explain and commemorate the cemetery’s history.

“My petition was that (the marker) would be left there, and that we would have a nice dedication and work to do some interpretive work,” she said.

Mayor Pam Hemminger and Town Manager Roger Stancil consulted with UNC officials before removing the marker. Peele and members of the cemeteries board learned about it from news reports.

‘They did nothing’

Board Chairman Steve Moore said he drove to the cemetery late Monday to see for himself; it’s like the granite marker never existed, he said.

“It could have been stopped at any point by anybody for any reason within town government. They did nothing,” he said. “It went through existing processes. It was done in no way meant to be hidden. We got the word of when it would be installed; the mayor and every council member were invited. Not a one of them showed up.”

At issue now is whether the town’s removal of the marker was legal under a 2015 state law that protects historic monuments, he said.

The law allows “an object of remembrance” to be relocated temporarily if the state or other government determines measures are needed to preserve the object, or if necessary to allow for construction or renovation of buildings, open spaces, parking and transportation projects.

The town didn’t consider the law, Stancil said, but he doesn’t think it applies.

“Seeing as how this wasn’t dedicated, there wasn’t a ceremony, it was delivered there from the maker and placed there,” he said. “So we actually just removed it from there before it’s actually yet installed and celebrated and dedicated.”

The marker has been stored in a Public Works building across town.

“I think everybody had good hearts in doing this, and it’s a matter of can we rethink it together and do it in an even bigger and better way to celebrate the lives of families affected by this,” Stancil said.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb