Fate of graves stirs disquiet in Reidsville
REIDSVILLE ‘— The remains of unnamed black people who lived around this economically battered former tobacco town in the first half of the twentieth century are likely to be removed from the ground to make way for a development springing up around a new Wal-Mart.
The plan attracted little notice or opposition when a church deacon, a funeral home director and a developer went before the Rockingham County Commission on May 2 requesting authorization to disinter about 450 graves and move them to a local cemetery. But following the publication of a story in the local newspaper a small group has emerged to contest the plan, citing concerns that the remains of the dead ‘— now likely entwined in the roots of hundreds of sturdy trees ‘— will be violated.
‘“I don’t know who would want to dig up our ancestors and sell this property,’” said Floyd Slade, a Reidsville resident who wears graying dreadlocks. Having grown up here he returned recently after retiring from a career in public works in Connecticut.
He and Amon Muhammad, a 32-year-old imam who leads a Muslim study group from a one-story brick storefront in Reidsville, recently stood among a collection of scattered gravestones and unmarked fieldstones commemorating the dead in a 2.3-acre plot of land under a lush forest canopy near the intersection of Scales Street and Freeway Drive. The latter thoroughfare functions as a bypass around the southern and eastern rim of town, making it a magnet for new retail development.
The burial ground lies in a wooded area behind an electrical supply company, easy to miss for motorists zooming toward the nearby town of Eden. Across the street are a Department of Motor Vehicles customer service center and a State Trooper’s outpost. Just up Freeway Drive from the burial ground is a shopping center anchored by a Food Lion grocery store. And only a tenth of a mile down the road from the turnoff to the burial ground is the unfinished structure of the new Wal-Mart, where earth-moving machines can be seen leveling the ground for parking.
Slade and Muhammad have banded together with about a dozen others as the Local Organizing Committee of the Millions More Movement. The Local Organizing Committee took up the cause of defending the graves as a local facet of its effort to mobilize people to attend a mass march called by a coalition of national black leaders for Oct. 14-16 in Washington, DC.
Aside from the handful of markers documenting deaths occurring between 1905 and 1959, hundreds of depressions in the ground prove this as a burial place for people whose survivors could not afford caskets. Few of the unmarked graves are matched by corresponding church records. Each grave is marked with a red flag by Tricor Southwest Corp., an Arizona developer that could potentially buy the property.
The current owner of the burial ground and would-be seller is Little Salem Christian Church, a black church that acquired the burial ground under somewhat mysterious circumstances. The church’s pastor, Rev. Ronald McRae, said he believes the church took responsibility for the property from a family known as the Gunns, who were members of the church and whose relatives are buried here. McRae added that the burial site was once partly owned by Lawsonville Baptist, a white church, suggesting the cemetery also contains the remains of white people.
The mysterious origin of the burial ground was emphasized by Little Salem Christian Church in a relocation report submitted to the County Commission, which includes an interview by a representative of Tricor with a man identified as a town historian for the black community in Reidsville.
‘“I know very little about the cemetery,’” the historian, Stanley Harley, is quoted as saying. ‘“Nobody I guess hardly knew it was there until Wal-Mart started building near the site.’”
Slade and Muhammad said they did not know the burial ground existed prior to the request by the church to remove it. The lack of documentation only seems to fuel their disquiet.
‘“We’re all black people, all sons and daughters of slaves,’” Slade said. ‘“Whether I know that I have ancestors in here or not, I’m sure I have ancestors in here.’”
Rev. McRae said he attended a press conference held by the Local Organizing Committee on June 17, and concluded that the group was more interested in acquiring political advantage than in advancing the interests of family members of the deceased. He said his church would entertain the idea of preserving the burial ground if either the city of Reidsville or a consortium of faith groups were willing to accept responsibility for maintenance costs, but the Local Organizing Committee made no such offer.
McRae said Tricor, which has been authorized by the church to carry out the relocation of the graves, has expressed interest in buying the property. The development company has not made an offer for the property and McRae said he doesn’t know how much money the land would bring. The church was originally approached by Wal-Mart about selling the property in 2004, he said.
Yet money is not a motivating factor in the church’s plan to sell the property, the pastor said.
‘“We are a church that is interested in economic development,’” he said. ‘“We are a very secure church. We have no debt at all. Money definitely wouldn’t be one of the reasons.’”
Later he added, after stating that he wouldn’t oppose a city plan to assume responsibility for the burial ground: ‘“What I don’t want is this becoming an eyesore to Wal-Mart and this being a case of our church having to be the custodian of it.’”
With the most recent unemployment rates available for Rockingham County registering at 7.7 percent, job creation is no small concern. But the push for economic development strikes Muhammad as a callous reason for bothering the dead. He questions County Commission’s motives for allowing the church to move forward with its disinterment plan.
‘“The town is hurting for jobs, and they’re interested in ‘would y’all hurry up and open the Wal-Mart,”” he said.
Eugene Russell, the county attorney, said he is unaware of any definite plans for the burial ground once the graves are removed, but was not reluctant about speculating.
‘“It looks to me like it would be convenient to [Wal-Mart] to have an access route from Freeway Drive, but it’s my understanding that no plan is on file with the county,’” he said. ‘“Where there’s a Wal-Mart, there might be other stores. I imagine that Tricor has some kind of business relationship with Wal-Mart.’”
Representatives of Tricor, including the company’s president, did not return phone calls to their headquarters in Scottsdale, Ariz. on June 17.
Regardless of the relative merits of moving the graves, Russell pointed out that North Carolina statute does not require churches to get official authorization to move graves on their property. The law does require churches to move graves under the supervision of the county health director, and the five commissioners voted unanimously to direct the health department to oversee the undertaking.
Russell lauded the church’s efforts to reach family members of the deceased, as well as the proposed plan to transfer the graves to Reidlawn Cemetery in Reidsville.
‘“It seems like a very dignified plan to me,’” he said. ‘“They seem to have thought this through very well.’”
The relocation report submitted by Little Salem Christian Church states that the burial ground will be fenced in, the trees cut down and the remains ‘— presumed in most cases to be little more than piles of dark-colored dirt ‘— placed in children’s caskets. The caskets would be transported in a Mack truck, buried together at Reidlawn Cemetery, and individually marked. Finally, what the report terms ‘“a significant monument feature’” incorporating fieldstones from the old burial ground would be erected to honor the dead.
The report pledges to place legal notices in three Rockingham County newspapers for four consecutive weeks before removing the graves so that family members may come forward to claim the remains. The report also states that searches will be conducted using internet search engines and telephone directories to track down the next of kin for those of the dead for whom written records exist.
The report contains personal information on only 17 of the individuals buried in the paupers’ cemetery. The identities of hundreds more are likely to remain a mystery for the fact noted by Rev. McRae that ‘“a lot of people who have knowledge of this cemetery have passed on.’”
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