Della Wimberly1896 -
Volunteers plan Unity Cemetery cleanup
Rocky Mount Telegram
Volunteers plan Unity Cemetery cleanup
By John Ramsey
Rocky Mount Telegram
Sunday, July 23, 2006
Somewhere among the soda bottles, old tires and concrete blocks that litter Unity Cemetery sits the grave of a baby named Ivy Demetrius Hart.
The child's father, 58-year-old Stephen Hart, knows he'll never find his son's resting place in the neglected graveyard hidden in the woods off Grand Avenue.
But on any given day for the past six years, Hart could be found in the city's first black cemetery mowing grass, pulling weeds, clearing dirt from headstones.
"For me, it has turned into a lifetime obligation," said Hart, whose 11-week-old child died in 1969. "I throw a lot of blame on myself. ... No one should have to lose their loved ones, never to be found again."
Cleaning and maintaining the 30-acre cemetery, however, is not a one-man job. Hart is chairman of the city's Unity Cemetery Restoration Committee, but only twice since 2004 have more than four or five people helped him with the work.
On Aug. 5, Hart and real estate agent Jerry Fisher plan to organize more than 100 people from across the city to rid the land of litter and to clean the underbrush from the area beginning at 9 a.m. Churches, community leaders and police officers have agreed to lend a hand and spread the word about the event.
"I've spoken to some church folks and some community people," said Holly Street Community President Mae Parker. "Everybody's excited to go out there."
After touring the cemetery, Jessie and Marion Hamor pledged to put flags on the veterans' graves and flowers on the others.
"It's a great opportunity for the community to come together and do something good," Fisher said. "Just cleaning the underbrush out is going to make it a totally different place."
A blue metal sign that reads "No Dumping" greets visitors who turn on the dirt path to Unity.
Upon entering, it becomes obvious that the sign has largely been ignored. Hart, with the help of some of his committee members, has removed trash ranging from glass bottles and paper to discarded school desks and refrigerators. And loads of trash remain on the roadsides in the wooded area.
"It brings tears to your eyes," Hart said. "It's the lack of love that they have, or the lack of concern that they have, or the selfishness they have."
The cemetery dates back to at least the 1830s. Dempsey Cotton, who along with Hart and Rocky Mount City Councilman Andre Knight began the movement two years ago to clean Unity and Lancaster cemeteries, said the oldest grave he has found is marked 1834.
The cemetery began as a place to bury blacks outside city limits, because whites banned them from being buried in the city. The first black person buried in the city's Pineview Cemetery was in the 1970s. The open plots at Unity are owned by a burial association formed in the early 1900s. Stokes Mortuary administers sales of the plots, but ownership of individual plots is given to the purchasing family.
So families – as owners of the plots – were expected to keep their own grave sites clean. But as families died out or moved away, the cemetery began looking more like a forest than a graveyard.
Making Unity presentable is no small task, even for 100 people. Hart has almost single-handedly kept a section of about 1,200 graves clear, but that's less than one-sixth of the cemetery, he said.
Many of the thousands of graves have partially sunken into the ground, hidden by high grass and pine needles.
"I'd rather be cremated before I'd have to be buried right here," said Cotton, 87, as he walked through the woods and underbrush.
Dred Wimberly, a former slave who was elected to the N.C. Senate, is honored in the Twin Counties Hall of Fame. But his small, flat headstone at Unity is covered with pine needles and smeared with dirt. Poison ivy grows from the ground where he lies.
"It's our ancestors, our family members," said Naomi Wright, vice chairwoman of the restoration committee. "You don't want to see it go to nothing."
Fisher said he had never heard of Unity Cemetery until the Rocky Mount City Council began discussing its 2006-07 budget. The council added $10,000 to the budget to help clean Unity and Lancaster cemeteries. Fisher opposed the allocation (and still does) because the cemeteries are private businesses.
But once he toured the cemetery, Fisher said, he knew he had to help clean it up.
"I was appalled at the condition of that cemetery," he said. "The first thing I thought was, 'How would I feel if I came out to visit my grandmother's grave and this is what I had to look at?'"
Some council members have raised concerns about Fisher's motivation, calling it a political ploy to undermine the council. Fisher and Knight have had several heated public conversations.
The dissent surrounding the cleanup – much like the dissent that surrounded the 2006-07 budget – deals with the process more than the results.
Councilman Reuben Blackwell said he's excited to see that the council's decision triggered a broader movement to clean the cemetery, but he's wary of Fisher's motives.
"After years of asking for the public's help, I'm glad something can spark an interest around cleaning the cemetery," Blackwell said. "The only thing I take exception with is grandstanding behind a good deed."
Knight and Wright are less open to Fisher's movement. Wright called it a "political trick." Knight and Blackwell said the cemetery funding is receiving unfair scrutiny. If the idea is to save public dollars, they said, there are plenty of other projects he could help.
"Is he going to go to the Tar River Orchestra and polish their instruments, which get $9,000?" Knight asked. "I appreciate anybody that comes out and wants to come out and help. But I do not welcome the political statement that he is trying to make."
Hart, however, has welcomed Fisher's support. The two met after a city council meeting, when Hart confronted Fisher to ask why he was not in support of the cemetery.
Fisher explained his reason for opposing the funding, then told Hart of his plan to help clean the cemetery.
"When he got out here and saw what I've seen, he began to feel what I feel, and it became beyond a political situation," Hart said. "He began to see through my eyes what it really and truly means."
Fisher said he hopes everyone will drop politics on Aug. 5 and focus on Unity.
"I'm out here to work. I'm not out here to grandstand and politic," Fisher said. "Why not focus on the fact that the graveyard's going to get cleaned up?"
Parker said she hopes the all-day Saturday event mushrooms into a larger movement by people throughout the city.
"It's going to take us more than one time (cleaning), but I'm sure that when we leave on Aug. 5 that Saturday, I'm sure that you'll be able to see a big difference," Parker said. "A group of us sat down and said we don't need every little thing to be a racial issue here in our city."
The mission, she said, is to get people to come together, regardless of race, and clean in Unity.
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