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Monument Remembering African Americans Unveiled At Old Chapel Hill Cemetery

Old Chapel Hill Cemetery, Chapel Hill, Blacks
Leoneda Inge

Students, staff and visitors to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill may be familiar with the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery sitting at the top of the knoll on South Road.

Then they also know how segregated the cemetery is – with headstones of whites on one side and blacks on the other.

Sunday, a new headstone was unveiled to remember all the unmarked graves of African Americans buried there.

The ceremony was late in the afternoon, but still humid enough for a fan or handkerchief. The crowd was mostly quiet, except for people greeting old friends and relatives. 

In case you didn’t know why you were there, you did after young voices from UNC’s Black Student Movement filled the air with “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often called the “Black National Anthem.”

“Lift every voice and sing, til earth and heaven ring. Ring with a harmony of liberty. Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies. Let it resound, loud as the rolling sea," they sang.

The Old Chapel Hill Cemetery was land set aside mainly for University of North Carolina students who died while in school. The first student on record was buried there in 1798. About 35 years later, a rock wall was built around the cemetery. The earliest known black person was buried there in 1853.

Today, you can still see a low rock wall through the center of the cemetery, whites buried on one side, blacks on the other. But on the side where blacks were laid to rest, many grave sites remain unmarked. The town officially took ownership of the cemetery in 1989.

Old Chapel Hill Cemetery, Chapel Hill, Blacks
Credit Leoneda Inge
This monument was recently unveiled at the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery, in honor of African Americans in unmarked graves.

“Although the original gravestones are no longer here, the peoples’ whose names they bore are not forgotten," said Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger at the ceremony. "Many have family members still living and working in Chapel Hill and we will continue to work to identify all that are buried here and list their names on a future planned table in the area around you.”

The new monument in remembrance of the unmarked grave sites on the black side of the cemetery is a large headstone that reads, “Thus we like birds retreat to groves, and hide from ev’ry eye, Our slumbr’ing dust will rise and meet its morning in the sky,” by George Moses Horton, enslaved poet and intellectual.

“Standing tall but reflects the past, but it also gives us a beacon for the future," said Robert Campbell, a minister who helped pull off the white cloth, unveiling the monument. 

Campbell said his great, great grandmother and about a dozen relatives are buried in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery. He said just like graves were unmarked because of race, it wasn’t easy as an African American to just drop by and visit the cemetery when he was young.

“There was a time in the past when you just didn’t see a bunch of Afro American young boys coming down on campus," said Campbell. "But Sunday we figured it out, there was less resistance on Sundays so we come out and we learned about what was around here.”

But on this day, there were no questions asked. A mixture of races came together to honor the descendants of slaves, on a hallowed ground.

Leoneda Inge is WUNC’s race and southern culture reporter, the first public radio journalist in the South to hold such a position. She also is co-host of the podcast Tested and host of the special podcast series, PAULI. Leoneda is the recipient of numerous awards from AP, RTDNA and NABJ. She’s been a reporting fellow in Berlin and Tokyo. You can follow her on Twitter @LeonedaInge.
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