Nobody knows how many souls rest in the red clay of Oak Grove Cemetery – a plot of land nobody owns, its graves marked mostly with rocks, illegible tombstones or not at all.
The oldest marker I could read belonged to a baby with the last name Wilcox, who died in 1898 after only a month on Earth, and whose farewell is chiseled, “The good die young.”
This hard-to-find West Raleigh graveyard holds some of the earliest residents of Method, the proud black village that sprang up after the Civil War. Not far away, the merchant-banker Berry O’Kelly turned a one-room schoolhouse into a teacher-training and industrial school for blacks – a pillar of racial progress in the early 20th century.
For years, the vegetation grew up over the stones at Oak Grove, and in 2009, vandals knocked several dozen of them over, prompting this condemnation from Michael Pope, an associate pastor at Oak City Baptist Church:
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“Kids,” he sneered, “who have no respect for authority and who do not fear God. They want what they want, and they don’t care how they get it.”
But on Friday, I followed a team of archaeologists intent on saving this burial ground from obscurity, erosion and God-belittling youth. They pushed a three-wheeled vehicle the size of a shopping cart over the cemetery’s surface, aiming a radar pulse underground to locate each resting spot. A coffin buried in clay is harder to spot than a casket sunk in sand, but the radar can penetrate 5 to 6 feet down – deep enough to make a map of Method’s past.
“Most folks have heard the term six feet under,” said Shawn Patch, principal investigator with New South Associates. “What we find is very few people are buried at six feet.”
This mapping project grew out of a larger effort to gain historic status for several of Raleigh’s older black cemeteries and to bring wider attention to a century of Method history – paid for with a federal grant in which the city pays a $6,000 share. When I asked if Raleigh had any kind of inventory of the Oak Grove departed, historic preservation planner Martha Lauer told me, “You’ve kind of fallen into the purpose of this project.”
A few years ago, I watched a pair of Confederate soldier brothers get disinterred from a family plot off Trinity Road. Aside from a few buttons and a belt buckle, all that remained was a patch of discolored soil. Many of the Oak Grove records are lost, but from the dips in the cemetery soil, it’s clear its underground inhabitants far outnumber the concrete memorials.
Radar will pick up a subsurface coffin, and traipsing through Oak Grove, I saw several of them show up on an LCD screen. To a radar unit, the remains of a human life look like fingerprints – just wavy and irregular lines against a gray background.
“It picks up tree roots, too,” Patch told me.
Oak Grove persists in sight of the I-440 Beltline, and I got there by driving through a one-lane tunnel that runs under the highway. What stones remain in Oak Grove, even the modern ones, speak to a culture that is struggling to speak into the 21st century. Even the names on the headstones carry the cadence of another era, a time of horses, buggies and general stores: Everhardt Ligon, Wilbertine Sills.
We’re a city that bulldozed much of our history, that paved over miles of our past. I’m glad to hear the faint voice of this generation whose names still appear on street signs, whose history – hidden off the back streets – still matters.