Midtown Raleigh News

City won’t take over struggling Hillcrest Cemetery in Southeast Raleigh

Some graves at Hillcrest Cemetery on Garner Road are in poor condition. Funeral home owner Bruce Lightner wants the city to take over maintenance from his business.
Some graves at Hillcrest Cemetery on Garner Road are in poor condition. Funeral home owner Bruce Lightner wants the city to take over maintenance from his business. ccampbell@newsobserver.com

City leaders have declined to take over maintenance at a historic black cemetery in Southeast Raleigh, citing heavy costs and liability concerns.

Hillcrest Cemetery on Garner Road dates to the 1920s and is home to a number of notable Raleigh residents, including Wake County’s first black judge. But parts of the 3-acre property are in disrepair, with crumbling tombstones and sunken graves.

Bruce Lightner’s funeral home has been keeping the grass mowed for decades. The cemetery was created by Lightner’s grandfather and two other black funeral directors who wanted to provide an affordable burial option. At the time, all cemeteries were segregated, and only church cemeteries were available to black families.

But the other two partners in Hillcrest are long gone. “It was left up to us to take care of the cemetery,” Lightner said.

But Lightner is getting older and expects he’ll eventually close down the business. He says he can no longer afford to spend thousands each year to mow the property, so he’s asked the Raleigh City Council to take control of the cemetery.

If the city doesn’t step in, he says, “it would go to pot ... nobody will be around to cut the grass.”

The city’s Historic Cemeteries Advisory Board spent months studying the options. City staff estimate that restoring Hillcrest to the standard of other city cemeteries would cost $103,888, with annual maintenance costs of $79,074.

“If the city stepped in to take over this cemetery, we felt that it was important that it receive the same level of care that the existing cemeteries have now,” said Jimmy Thiem, who chairs the cemetery board. “We felt that it would not be appropriate to take over a property and treat it as a second-class citizen.”

The parks department, which oversees city-run cemeteries, doesn’t have the funding to handle another property, Thiem added. “There would be a decrease in the level of maintenance across the board” if Raleigh took responsibility for Hillcrest, he said.

City attorneys also pointed to legal problems with taking over Hillcrest: For many of the grave plots sold years ago, there’s no record of ownership. Attempting to contact families with an ownership stake there would prove a major challenge.

“There was never any recorded map,” Lightner said. “My father (former Raleigh mayor Clarence Lightner) knew everybody who was buried out here. There are 1,200 graves out here, and many of them are unmarked.”

While many of Hillcrest’s residents couldn’t afford a grave marker, others are notable in the city’s history. There’s William Dean “Pat” White, a two-time All-American quarterback at Ligon High School and standout in three other sports. He died of cancer in 1964 at age 19, and his tombstone describes him as “unquestionably Raleigh’s greatest multi-sport athlete.”

One of Hillcrest’s latest arrivals is George Greene, who died last year at age 82. He was the first African-American elected to a District Court judgeship in Wake County and later served in Superior Court.

Lightner points out that Raleigh has already taken over two privately run cemeteries, City Cemetery and O’Rorke Cemetery. He says Hillcrest deserves similar treatment. “This is in the absolute middle of the black community,” he said.

While they didn’t agree to take over the cemetery, city council members said they’d like to see it in better shape and suggested that a “friends of the cemetery” group be formed to raise money for maintenance.

“Clearly I think the surrounding community would be interested in seeing the restoration of that property,” Mayor Nancy McFarlane said.