Old, abandoned African American cemeteries that were created before and after slavery are archives, not unlike museums, says North Carolina Central University history professor Charles Johnson.
“They hold a treasure trove of our experiences and our history, not just for who is interred there, but the means of burial,” Johnson told the INDY last week. “It was not uncommon for African Americans who were not literate during post-emancipation to use crude carving instruments to make tombstones out of field stones.
“These cemeteries give us an opportunity to honor our ancestors and treat them in death in ways they were not treated in life,” says Johnson, who notes that the current quest by Black Americans to connect with family is not unlike the post-Reconstruction period when newly freedmen and women wanted to be buried at gravesites “in named plots next to family members in unmarked plots.”
“There’s a great deal of sanctity with this.”
Johnson has partnered with Duke University and Historic Stagville for the study, “Reckoning with the Dead: The Durham Black Burial Grounds Collaboratory.” His commentary came to mind last week after the discovery of the old Holman Family Cemetery, an abandoned, long-neglected, parcel that sits on the edge of Black Meadow Ridge in North Durham’s Horton Hills community in the Argonne Hills subdivision.
The modest cemetery has a handful of extant tombstones, including one for Seal Hall, who was born in 1800 and died in 1891, along with a second one propped against a tree that states Lonnie Holman was born in 1867 and died in 1925.
Nicholas Levy, vice president of Preservation Durham, knew the patch of sacred ground. Levy and Preservation Durham’s Board President Tom Miller visited the family cemetery in early August and stuck 68 small orange flags in the ground to mark potential gravesites after determining the tombstones and other grave markers were part of a “much larger, patterned area including dozens of field stones and grave depressions.”
In an email to the INDY, Levy says property records and other documents confirm that the cemetery was part of an expansive 88-acre tract owned by Dilsy, a Black woman who purchased the land in the late 1870s.
In noting its importance, Levy adds the gravesite will help scholars, historians, and the general public better understand the “early post-Civil War reconfiguration of communities around the Eno River.”
Johnson says there are at least 30 old Black cemeteries in various states of condition scattered throughout Durham and the surrounding region that were established during slavery and the post-Emancipation period.
“A couple are historically significant,” he says.
Johnson says many of the burial grounds sit on hills to symbolize Calvary or Golgotha and are established near rivers to symbolize the biblical significance of the Jordan River.
One of the more intriguing Black burial grounds is the Johnson Family Cemetery tucked away in Duke Forest near the border of Durham and Orange counties. The cemetery sits on a hill surrounded by oak, pine, and hickory trees. The site, now the property of a neighborhood homeowners association, was originally owned by Charles William Johnston, who started the Green Hill plantation after he received a land grant from the King of England in 1750. Enslaved people, dating back to the 1700s, were allowed to bury their loved ones on the plot of land. The last known burial happened in 1959.
The descendants of those interred at the cemetery could not be reached for comment, but a local website provides a wealth of information. The website notes, for instance, that the Bible of Fannie Moore lists the names of the enslaved people buried at the site. The two oldest recorded burials were for “David,” who was born in 1781, and Rachel, born a decade later in 1791.
Susan Johnston Sellers, a descendant of the Johnston plantation owners, wants to restore the burial ground with help from the state.
“It’s the sad heritage of my family and others that this cemetery has been completely forgotten,” Sellers told the INDY.
After returning to the area several years ago, she has encouraged her neighbors to support efforts to preserve the burial ground. Sellers explained that although the place is formally known as the Johnston Cemetery, the formerly enslaved on the Green Hill plantation dropped the letter “t” after emancipation.
The ancient cemetery is laid out in lined rows of tombstones, granite, and quartz rocks. The quiet burial ground is a testament to a people who, after being stolen from themselves, reclaimed and honored their lives in death. Near the cemetery entrance, there appear to be remnants of an outdoor church, where ancient, lichen-covered rocks with smooth surfaces may have served as worship pews.
The tombstones and fieldstone markers range in size from a massive, anvil-shaped rock that sits next to an unlikely statue of a Hindu deity, to a quartz rock less than 10 inches long and two inches wide, embedded in the pine-straw covered ground.
Sellers’ neighbor Lindsay Wilkes on Sunday pointed to trees near depressions in the grounds. She has since learned that the trees may have served as grave markers.
“Sometimes they would bury around the tree for an entire family,” Wilkes says.
“A cemetery census says there are 144 graves there, but I think there are at least 200,” Sellers says. “My great-grandfather’s will left 1.15 acres to the cemetery’s descendants, but it was never honored.”
“We are exploring the possibility, that the transfer of ownership of the cemetery, to an HOA, may not have been proper, or legal,” says Jackie Johnson Shahin, a Johnson Cemetery descendant who maintains the website about the history of the burial ground.
In an email to the INDY, Shahin said that many of the descendants live in the Triangle because their ancestors remained in the area after emancipation.
The Black burial ground’s descendants include several pioneers. Stanley Vickers was the first Black student to attend Carrboro-Chapel Hill public schools. Civil rights activist and decorated military veteran Jim Merritt was the first Black person to serve on the Chapel Hill town council, and Andre Leon Talley, the fashion maven, author, and journalist is a creative and former fashion director with Vogue magazine.
Sellers, Wilkes, and their neighbors’ plans to preserve the cemetery are mirrored by the supporters of the Holman Family Cemetery, and at all of the Black burial grounds throughout the region.
“We need to preserve this place out of respect for the humanity of those buried there, out of appreciation for the all-too-rare window it opens onto part of our shared past, and out of dedication to be better stewards of Durham history—particularly Black history—going forward,” Levy says.
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