Hundreds of Black Lives Matter protesters in Raleigh celebrated Juneteenth this year by pulling down the statues of two Confederate soldiers on the Capitol grounds.
More quietly, just hours before and less than a mile away, a handful of volunteers paid tribute to forgotten monuments: the graves of enslaved and free Black people at the Raleigh City Cemetery, the city’s oldest public burial ground. Clad in bright yellow vests, the volunteers gathered around Ryan Lerch, a Raleigh parks superintendent, who talked about the Black residents buried there.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the 7.68-acre Raleigh City Cemetery is one of only two public cemeteries in the state. (The other is in New Bern.) With one entrance at Hargett and East streets and another on New Bern Avenue, the park is tucked into a residential area in the shadow of downtown.
The cemetery contains the remains of the city’s earliest settlers and state legislators alongside the stonemasons from Scotland and England who built the State Capitol. When the Raleigh City Cemeteries Preservation nonprofit was formed in 2006, the acre-and-a-half Black section was intact but badly neglected. Many of the tombstones had been overturned. Some were broken. Others were marred with graffiti.
RCCP partnered with city officials to hire Dean Ruedrich, a restoration specialist who had worked all over the country rebuilding slave cabins and restoring grave markers, to rehabilitate the enslaved section, which was in the worst shape. When it was filled in 1871, it was closed, and the city created the Mt. Hope Cemetery to house the remains of Black citizens.
Even though 1,000 Black people are buried here, only 60 monuments and grave markers remained when restoration work began. RCCP member Jane Thurman says some had been vandalized, while others were removed by family members. When Ruedrich started his restoration he found that some tombstones in the Black section had sunk about an inch underground over time. Most of the markers lay flat in the grass after breaking off at the base.
Ruedrich, who died last year, started working in the enslaved section in 2015, finishing three years later. He built new bases for the fallen monuments. He dug up others and found several more, including footstones that contained only the initials of the deceased.
“One of the best days in my life was standing in that section, seeing those graves upright,” Thurman says.
Many of the thin, time-scarred concrete and marble tombstones are inscribed with names and dates that are barely legible. Some are nameless. There are several with only the curving tops visible. In many ways, these modest, weathered markers are analogous to the physical and psychological condition of the people they stand to represent—gouged, chipped, broken remnants that survived against all odds.
The Black graves in the Raleigh City Cemetery offer a striking contrast to the imposing Confederate monuments that are falling across the national landscape. The markers are a metaphor for what was—the majestic “big house” of the slaveowners in close proximity to the terrible quarters where the enslaved lived—and what is: the refurbishing and building of white-owned homes next to creaky, resource-neglected Black-owned dwellings. The global protests that erupted after the killing of George Floyd are about the neglect and desecration of Black bodies, which was already laid bare by the pandemic.
Shelley M. Winters, one of the volunteers who helped clean branches and brambles from the Black graves in Raleigh, echoed that sentiment.
“Where are the statues for the people who built the capitol?” she asks.
It was Winters who came up with the idea to clean the tombstones as a somber and reflective means to honor Juneteenth by paying tribute to those who died wanting freedom.
“It’s not just Black history,” Winters says. “This is Raleigh history. It’s American history, and it should be honored as such. We have no names, no faces for the people who physically built and sustained this city.”
Winters is the niece of John Winters, who, before he died of Parkinson’s disease in 2004, worked as a developer and is largely responsible for Southeast Raleigh becoming a Black enclave. He served on the city council and later became one of the first Black senators after decades of Black voter suppression since the late 1800s. The Winters family descendants were born free. There’s a plaque commemorating them on East Street, a stone’s throw from the cemetery.
Shelley Winters served as chair of Raleigh’s citizens advisory councils and the Atlantic CAC before they were disbanded by the city council in February. She wanted to do something to honor the Juneteenth holiday and called Grady Bussey, the chair of the city’s annual African American Cultural Festival.
Bussey, Winters says, was unenthusiastic about “celebrating” the fact that some Black captives endured two more years in forced labor camps after President Lincoln proclaimed their freedom. But then Winters, who is now a member of the city’s planning commission, had the idea of giving dignity to the enslaved population by cleaning their gravesites.
“It was like a light bulb that hit me,” Winters says. “Juneteenth is not just a point of freedom, but also to honor those who were enslaved.”
“We figured the best thing to do was paying homage to the slave ancestors,” Bussey adds.
Winters says she first reached out to the residents of Oberlin Village, the formerly all-Black community that cleans the graves in its own community cemetery each year. When she found out the residents had not planned a cemetery cleaning for Juneteenth, Bussey suggested the City Cemetery.
A little more than a dozen people showed up. The tombstones of the enslaved, even with faded lettering and dates, told many stories.
Enslaved people in Raleigh died young. Of the 30 stone markers where birth and death dates are listed or otherwise known, the average age of death was about 29. That’s taking into account Nancy Kenedy, who died in 1858 at 85, and Jane Dickerson, who passed in 1844 at 90. It also includes five babies who were one or younger when they died.
Thurman says that Caroline Stronach, who died at 29, was either the wife or sister of Columbus Stronach, a stonemason who was likely enslaved by and an apprentice to William Stronach, who owned a marble yard across from the cemetery, and constructed many of the tombstones at the location.
There are tombstones marking the remains of five people who died in their teens. Thomas Weems was 16. So was John Scott. Martha Buffalo was 17. John Johnson, 16, died just days after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Anne Morgan died at 19, one year after Emancipation. Little Albert Norwood was two when he died in 1857.
Harriet Bryan was born in 1799. “Sacred to the Memory of Harriet,” reads her tombstone. “An Honest and Faithful domestic servant in the family of John H. Bryan.”
Chaney Harris was beloved by her children. “The stone erected in the memory of our mother, Chaney Harris, who departed this life on June 24, 1832,” reads her marker. Apparently, the enslaved mother’s children were unsure of when she was born. She died “at an advanced age,” her tombstone says.
Most prominent among the graves of the enslaved was Cato, who had an obituary printed in the Raleigh Minerva newspaper owned by noted citizen William Boylan, who is also buried in the City Cemetery.
Cato, a printer and bookbinder in Boylan’s downtown shop, was enslaved by Boylan’s uncle. Cato died in 1811. RCCP member Betsy Shaw discovered his obituary in the Minerva.
“It is one of the most remarkable pieces of history,” Thurman says. “He was very well-liked and had a lot of interaction with the public.”
The tombstone of Anna Julia Haywood Cooper sits almost on the invisible line that separates the enslaved from the free. That’s apt. Cooper was born a slave in 1858, and after Emancipation she went on to become the first Black American woman to earn a Ph.D. in history from the Sorbonne in Paris. She was a scholar, author, and early feminist, praised by Frederick Douglass and a peer of W.E.B. Dubois. For African American feminists, she is best known for asserting in 1892 that “only the BLACK WOMAN can say when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.”
Thurman says that in this unique moment, these near-forgotten monuments prompt her to reflect on “how we’re collecting history and what we think of it.” She says she only recently learned about the Tulsa race massacre because it wasn’t in her school history books.
“It’s time to face how we created a narrative and tell more stories,” she says.
Death and time are great equalizers. The remains of enslaved and slaveholder alike are in the same cemetery. In a place that holds the remains of the city’s founding fathers and state legislators, Juneteenth was an opportunity to acknowledge those whose names will never be known.
“It was a way to give them the dignity they did not receive in their lifetimes,” Winters says. “It’s way overdue.”
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