Johnston County

Scout restores a forgotten cemetery in Selma

Isaac Wells, 16, stands in a forgotten cemetery behind Selma Memorial Gardens. Wells chose to rehabilitate the cemetery as his Eagle Scout project.
Isaac Wells, 16, stands in a forgotten cemetery behind Selma Memorial Gardens. Wells chose to rehabilitate the cemetery as his Eagle Scout project. abennett@newsobserver.com

When Isaac Wells was 9, his younger brother Jeremy died and was buried in Selma Memorial Gardens. Wells and his parents visited his grave often, he said.

On one of those visits, Wells noticed a different section of graves beyond the freshly mown lawn and colorful flowers of the Memorial Gardens.

“As I looked out over the nice, manicured grasses of the Memorial Gardens, I saw a scary, rundown piece of land covered with broken headstones,” Wells remembered.

At 9 years old, Wells said, he didn’t think too much about the neglected cemetery, but he never forgot it either. When the time came for Wells to choose his Eagle Scout project, he picked the forgotten cemetery.

Wells said his scout leader, Chris Thomson, suggested the abandoned cemetery. “I was immediately interested,” Wells said. “It was the scary cemetery behind where my baby brother was buried.”

Last year, Wells and his mom visited the cemetery to assess its potential as a service project.

“It was overwhelming, to say the least,” he said. “Had no one ever given a thought for the poor people buried here?”

The cemetery showed signs of vandalism, with many of the headstones knocked over, broken or chipped.

So Wells got to work, doing research on the cemetery, recruiting volunteers and holding fundraisers to pay for supplies.

“There was a lot that needed done, in my eyes,” said Wells, now 16 and a junior at Smithfield-Selma High School.

That work began this summer.

Research told him about a few of the people buried in the cemetery, which has about 60 graves, most dating from the early 1880s to the 1940s. Several veterans of World War I and World War II were buried there, Wells discovered. Several plots included families with parents, children, even infants.

But more than half of the graves had only stone crosses with no names or dates. Wells said he had been unable to discover who’s buried in those plots.

“It’s pretty much a mystery,” he said. “I heard they might be slaves or soldiers, but I was never able to find out exactly what they are.”

But even the graves of the forgotten deserve care, Wells said. “Someone needs to care,” he said. “No one would want their loved ones treated like this.”

“It was a mess,” Wells’ father, Jeremy, said of the cemetery.

Wells and his volunteers – fellow scouts, Selma police officers and members of his church – put broken headstones back together as best they could, using adhesive and clamps. They also cleaned the headstones to make them legible again. But they could only do so much: Many of the headstones were missing pieces, and sometimes the base of the monument was all that remained.

“We looked all over for pieces,” Jeremy Wells said, adding that volunteers discovered some in a deep ditch nearby. “But sometimes we couldn’t find them.”

Some headstones had been moved, so Wells placed them near their families when possible.

“It’s hard to tell exactly where people are buried when the headstones are moved,” he said. “So we just try to put them near their families so they’re together.”

Who owns the abandoned cemetery also is a mystery, Wells said. He worked with the town to track down an owner but got no where.

Wells and his dad said they hope to have a sign or plaque erected at the entrance to the small cemetery so it perhaps it won’t be forgotten again. Wells said he’s also petitioned the town to maintain the lawn.

“We don’t want it to be neglected all over again,” he said. “The people who are buried here deserve better than that.”

Abbie Bennett: 910-849-2827; @AbbieRBennett

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