Chapel Hill News

Chapel Hill starts public dialogue about cemetery marker

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. mschultz@newsobserver.com

It was a good idea to place the marker last month in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery, Rev. Robert Campbell said Wednesday, but it’s just a rock if the people who are part of the story aren’t included.

“If we don’t teach the history or let people know the history – why these things happened – they will continue to happen,” said Campbell, president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP.

“I commend you all for the work you have done and the conversation that has started,” he said. “Now we have an opportunity to work together to bring a resolve that everybody” can support.

Campbell joined residents, town officials and Cemetery Advisory Board members Wednesday to clear the air and find a way to honor those buried in the historically black section of the town-owned cemetery on UNC’s campus.

A transparent process will face less resistance, said Jesse Gibson, with the Hank Anderson Breakfast Club and the NAACP.

The town has been criticized for the marker, which the advisory board installed Feb. 4 to honor 361 slaves and free people of color buried in the cemetery. They are among 465 people, including whites, buried there, many with a simple stone marker or wooden cross that no longer exists.

Campbell and Mayor Pam Hemminger said they heard from many students and residents after the installation.

The students largely were concerned about the intent and wording of a marker that they thought the university had erected on its land, Hemminger said. Others, Campbell said, wanted to know why they didn’t have a voice or a role in how their ancestors were being honored.

Preservation Chapel Hill executive director Cheri Szcodronski, who had criticized the marker’s wording and placement in the cemetery, did not attend Wednesday’s meeting. She also sits on the cemeteries board but has not attended the meetings for at least a year.

The advisory board thought it was doing the right thing when it approved retired judge Stanley Peele’s petition for the marker in December, board member Jane Slater said. Peele wrote the inscription based on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington:

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

The marker wasn’t meant to speak for the whole town, Slater said. The board paid for it with $1,875 from its Cemeteries Beautification Fund and let town leaders know it was being installed, but no dedication was held and no public notice was issued about the decision or the installation.

“We wanted a service, a dedication, an observation. We wanted everyone included,” Slater said. “It’s very common to place a memorial and later have a dedication. That is simply a gravestone that was put in.”

Hemminger and Town Manager Roger Stancil had workers remove the marker Feb. 29 and put it into storage until the community decides what to do.

Hemminger said she is hopeful for a solution by summer. The council voted Monday to let its naming committee – the mayor and council members George Cianciolo and Donna Bell – work with the community to plan a conversation. It could start this month, she said.

Hemminger also apologized for the confusion that the situation had created.

“We’ve come up with a process,” she said, “to reach into the community and bring people to the table who may be related to some people that are buried there to get some input, to look for ideas of how we move this forward to pay honor and respect to the people that are buried there.”

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

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