Sunday, September 14, 2014, Tony (Thomas Matthew Harvey) called me and told me that loggers were logging in the area of the Old Willow Oak Cemetery.Tony said that he had secured a temporary injunction to halt all work and they were going to court on Wednesday September 17, 2014.
Tuesday, September 16, 2014, I called Susan G. Myers in Raleigh. Susan is the North Carolina Staff Archaeologist & Site Registrar for the Central Region which includes Northampton County. She told me about the statutes concerning access to cemeteries,, unmarked human graves and the penalty for disturbing graves.
She was not able to answer all of my questions and suggested that I call Shawn Patch at New South Associates in Greensboro. That he may be able to clarify some of the points for me. I talked to Shawn and got a general idea of what we needed to do to reclaim the cemetery. I passed this information over to Tony and he called Susan and Shawn.
On Wednesday, September 17, 2014, the Judge left it up to the Logging company and the church to decide what to do about the situation. The loggers returned to work the next day with the promise that they would correct any damage that they did. All logging was completed within a few days and although the major logging area seems to be outside of the supposed Willow Oak Cemetery boarders there were some graves impacted. The major area that the loggers were working on has since been purchased by the Lucas family and has some of their family graves on it.
On Thursday, September 18, 2014, Shawn Patch, RPA/Principal Investigator–Sr. Archaeologist and Sr. Remote Sensing Specialist from New South Associates in Greensboro came down to walk the Old Willow Oak Cemetery with Tony.
Shawn reported that in his professional opinion there was clear evidence of a cemetery between the 2 known cemeteries. Its full boundaries and number of graves were unknown, but it extended into an area that is currently being logged. Most of the grave markers that he observed were made from concrete in a vernacular style. Death dates range from at least 1905 through the 1950s. He said that the use of concrete during the early decades of the twentieth century was a common feature of African-American cemeteries.
He also stated,
“Formal graves with markers tend to be clustered on the west side and unmarked graves with depressions are clustered on the east side (including a portion of the active logging zone). This may indicate temporal differences. The lack of markers in the eastern section suggests these are older than those in the western section.”
“Additional work should be conducted to more fully define the cemetery boundaries and estimate the number of burials. At a minimum, I recommend the following:
1) Archival research with deeds, county histories, and other sources to identify the chain-of title and possible origin and growth of the cemetery.
2) Systematic probing to identify the cemetery boundaries and estimate the number of graves.”
Shawn concluded that field conditions were not suitable for ground penetrating radar (GPR), but probing was a professionally accepted and minimally invasive technique that is widely used.
I live in Hampton, Virginia. My daughter Pat and I went to Rich Square and met with Tony on Saturday October 4, 2014 to walk the cemetery and assess the condition of the area so I would have a general idea of the conditions we were working with. Although Tony has cleaned a lot of debris and bushes from the cemetery there is still a lot to be done and small trees to be removed.
Tony tagged about 100 sites with flags where the depressions indicate graves are and believe there are over a hundred more. There are some graves with holes in them and a lot that have been damaged by tree-growth.
In 2010 they were tearing down the Old Point National Bank building in downtown Hampton, VA when they uncovered significant archaeological remains and had to stop the demolition. Old Point brought in James River Institute of Archaeology from Williamsburg to conduct archaeological data recovery. They evidently were very successful in their recovery and some of the artifacts are in the Hampton Museum.
So, on Monday, October 6, after I came back from my cemetery walk in Rich Square I called Nicholas Luccketti the Principal Investigator/Archaeologist at James River Institute. I explained our situation with the cemetery to him. He told me to give him a couple of days as he wanted to check on something and would get back with me.
Nick called me back faithfully in a couple of days on the 8th and told me he had talked to a friend of his and for me to call Charlie Ewen who is the Professor of Anthropology and Director of the East Carolina University Phelps Laboratory in Greenville, NC. I called Charlie and fortunately he was coming to Jackson to check on a project of one of his students on Monday or Tuesday and he would come over to Willow Oak and check out the condition of the cemetery and see if he and maybe some of his students could help us.
Monday morning October 13th, my daughter Pat and I and my cousin Calvin Harvey again went down to Rich Square. We met Charlie at Willow Oak Church’s parking lot at 10:00 am and drove over to the old cemetery. Also present were; Tony Harvey, Florence Ward, Essie Lucas Bowser, William Herbert Lucas, Scott Lucas, Helen Ophelia, Luke Ward, Lamont Parker and Krystyna Wolniakowski from Oregon who was in the area for 2 weeks doing research for the Roanoke Electric (REA) Sustainable Forestry Project .This project is working to teach small land owners (10 acres or more) better forest management techniques.
Charlie acknowledged that there were a lot of old unidentified and unmarked grave sites in the cemetery. Some crumbling and in need or repair.
There appears to be a deed whereby H. P. Maggett gave a tract of land to the church for a cemetery in 1906. The boundaries of which have not been clearly staked or defined. There are 2 or 3 cemeteries in the adjacent area, none of whose boundaries are clearly defined and they all seem to blend and overlap at certain points.
We decided that the best plan of action was to;
a) Clean as much of the debris out of the cemetery as possible during the Winter and early Spring before the foliage grew back.
b) Research the deed(s) to the cemetery. Some think there were 2 parcels of land given to the church for a cemetery.
Mary Eliza Smallwood, the daughter of Nat Turner (the nationally known insurrectionist), was buried in “Willow Oak Cemetery” in 1904.
This is prior to the parcel of land being deeded to Willow Oak for a cemetery by the H. P. Maggett in 1906.
Where did the original cemetery land come from and where is it located?
c) Ascertain the boundaries of Willow Oak Cemetery.
d) Try to find out who is buried out there.
If we are able to accomplish all of the above then in the Spring, Charlie may be able to come back with some of his students and help us sort out exactly what is out there and where the graves are located.
Some Things to Do Now:
1) Have a meeting at Willow Oak with volunteers who would like to work on this project.
2) Establish committees. (cleanup, land research, fund-raising, list of whose interred, etc.)
3)Gather church history.
4) Check on Historical site status.
It became mandatory to file Death Certificates in North Carolina in 1913.
I have access to all of the Northampton County Death Certificates online. I have started systematically going through them and entering the information on a spreadsheet of the ones that list Willow Oak as the burial site.
This is where we are at this moment.
Sorry this blog is so long but I wanted to catch every one up with what has been going on.
Lots more has been happening because Tony Harvey has probably made over a thousand calls and interviewed numerous people in the neighborhood about this cemetery. He walks it nearly every day sometimes two or three times day. Any improvements to this cemetery would not have been possible without his knowledge, tenacity, help, leadership and encouragement.
“Thanks! from all of us Tony”
If you would like to volunteer to help, in “any” capacity.
Please notify me
Gloria Greene at (757) 722-4163
Tony Harvey at (252) 539-2111
Rev.Tracy Tann at Willow Oak AME Church, 213 S. Main St, Rich Square, NC 27869 or (252) 539-4128
If you have any suggestions or ideas Please let us know. We are flying by the seat of our pants and many heads are better than a few!
They Deserve To Be Remembered
Gloria E. R. Greene