Wake County

Confederate graves, Gov. Aycock marker vandalized at Oakwood Cemetery

Robin Simonton, executive director of Oakwood Cemetery, and Raleigh historian Bruce Miller work to cover graffiti painted on nine grave markers and monuments, mostly in the Confederate section. Damage is estimated at $20,000.
Robin Simonton, executive director of Oakwood Cemetery, and Raleigh historian Bruce Miller work to cover graffiti painted on nine grave markers and monuments, mostly in the Confederate section. Damage is estimated at $20,000. Josh Shaffer

Vandals spray-painted anti-racist graffiti on nine monuments inside Raleigh’s Historic Oakwood Cemetery, mostly damaging the graves of high-ranking officers in the Confederate Army but also defacing the stone of North Carolina Gov. Charles Aycock, whose racial views in the early 1900s have found increasing criticism.

The attack caused roughly $20,000 in damage Wednesday night and is thought to be the first of its kind on private property, said Robin Simonton, executive director at Oakwood. Cemetery officials reported the crime to Raleigh police during the weekend, hoping to spare further destruction during the holidays.

“Cowardly acts like this, under cover of darkness, late at night, aren’t perpetrated by decent and thoughtful citizens,” Simonton said. “In these modern times, conversations on divisive issues should be held in person. Midnight assassinations don’t accomplish anything positive. Mature, non-emotional dialogue more often leads to agreement, or at least compromise.”

Damage at the cemetery comes in the wake of a series of similar high-profile incidents that reflect continued, heated controversy over the Civil War, 150 years after its formal conclusion.

On the UNC-Chapel Hill campus in 2014 and 2015 vandals repeatedly have defaced the “Silent Sam” monument, erected to honor alumni who fought for the Confederacy and died during the Civil War. Courthouses in Chapel Hill and Durham also have been struck, along with the Confederate Women’s Memorial at the Capitol in downtown Raleigh, which was spray-painted with “Black Lives Matter” in July.

The damage at Oakwood Cemetery appears to be more extensive, more targeted and better researched.

The Confederate section on a hill along Oakwood Avenue includes hundreds of foot soldiers’ graves, including 137 transported from the Gettysburg. Pa., battlefield in 1871. But the lower-ranking men’s graves went untouched in this attack. Instead the unknown vandals went after targets including:

▪ The marble obelisk over Gen. George B. Anderson, who died of a wound he received at the Battle of Antietam, was painted with “Slavery” in large red letters. Red drops were splashed high up the marker.

▪ The tall marker to Randolph Abbott Shotwell, a lieutenant who led sharpshooters in Pickett’s Charge, had “KKK” painted in black across its bottom. Shotwell was jailed after the Civil War largely because of his involvement with the Ku Klux Klan and later was pardoned by President Ulysses S. Grant.

▪ The bronze plaque and granite marker dedicated to the crew of the CSS H.L. Hunley, the Confederate submarine sunk off Charleston, S.C., and the first to sink an enemy ship, had “Not Heroes” painted across its back.

▪ The monument to Aycock, governor from 1901 to 1905, whose name has been removed from dormitories at Duke and East Carolina universities, had his grave painted “White Supremacist” in black letters. During the 1890s, Aycock led a move to suppress black citizens in North Carolina, calling them unfit to govern or vote.

“He’s not even Civil War,” said Raleigh historian Bruce Miller, who regularly leads tours through Oakwood graves.

Raleigh police continued to investigate the vandalism Sunday.

The cemetery of Oakwood forms part of a picture of Raleigh’s role in both the Civil War and slavery in the 19th century. A few decades ago, grass stood knee-high in the Confederate Cemetery and many of the graves had sunk into the ground.

Charles Purser, a researcher in Garner, tracked down the identities of the soldiers there and arranged for new markers, including one for a Union sharpshooter from Minnesota mistakenly buried there. In Raleigh’s City Cemetery a few blocks to the south, one quarter was reserved for slaves and free blacks, and nearly all of these graves are unmarked. The city erected a monument to them in 1991.

Simonton and Miller spent much of Saturday taping strips of burlap over the graffiti, but the red blotches rose up to 20 feet high on some markers and were impossible to cover. It wasn’t yet clear whether the paint could be removed without further damage to the markers. Oakwood hopes to rally support to repair the damage.

“These are people’s graves,” Simonton said. “This isn’t just a monument to honor a cause. There are people resting here.”

Though private, Oakwood Cemetery is open to the public and can be accessed by pedestrians even when the front gate is locked. Maps of notable graves, including many of those damaged, are available online. Joggers, bicyclists and walkers are welcomed on its sprawling grounds, which also include the graves of N.C. State men’s basketball coach Jim Valvano and Elizabeth Edwards, wife of the former N.C. senator and presidential candidate.

Oakwood has hosted an uncommon number of events on its grounds, not only the regular tours but others involving sunrise yoga and coffeehouse chats on subjects relating to mortality. Simonton said the cemetery hasn’t been vandalized since the 1980s. As he helped to cover the graffiti at Anderson’s marker, Miller noted with some satisfaction that one of the vandals had stepped in a large anthill.