One stone at a time: Descendants of NC slaves uncover Black and Native American history
The centuries-long persecution of Native American and enslaved Black people in this country suppressed access to collective heritage. Cultural traditions, ways of life and belongings were often stolen as individuals were forced into slavery or integration.
But remnants of their strong presence in North Carolina are still scattered across the state. In Hillsborough, N.C., descendants of Native and Black North Carolinians are hoping newly discovered cemeteries will help spotlight these legacies.
On a recent cloudy morning, Beverly Scarlett parked her Lexus SUV on the side of a two-lane road northeast of Hillsborough. It was really the only place to park a car before starting a short hike into the woods nearby.
Scarlett served as a district court judge in Orange County until 2021. Now that she’s retired, she spends a lot of time researching this area’s Black and Native American history, which also happens to be her own history.
A few months back, she got a message from a local property surveyor.
"He texted me and said, ‘I hear you’re into cemeteries.’ And I am," she laughed. "He said, ‘There’s a cemetery we want you to see.’ And he told me where it’s located, and I said, ‘Oh, those are my people.’ And as soon as I set foot on the property, I could barely control my emotions."
Despite the thick blanket of leaves left over from the fall, this is clearly a burial ground.
"Now, we haven’t blown off the leaves as you can tell, but you can see these depressions." She motions toward a row of rectangular indentations in the ground, each about six feet long.
The graves are marked with fieldstone, rocks that generally reveal the resting places of enslaved Black people. Scarlett points to dozens of pink ribbons the surveyor used to mark more graves.
"...he guessed between 50 and 75 graves."
Scarlett believes these graves belong to the Black people who were forced to work the land at Hardscrabble Plantation in Hillsborough. The original plantation house is about a mile from here.
"One of the people in our group, when I was first out here, was like, ‘Well, why would the graves be way out here? Why would it be so far?’ And I say, 'Well, these are Black people. And they didn't want them around their home.'"
A mission of preservation
When the owner of this property realized what was here, he donated about an acre of it to a non-profit run by Beverly Scarlett and her sister called Indigenous Memories. Its mission is to preserve sacred Black and Native American land.
Scarlett says that to understand how much that means to her, she has to go back about 40 years.
"…With me, graduating high school in 1979, heading off to college, rummaging through my parents' attic to find something to take to a dorm room," she says. "And I discovered a portrait. I made the mistake of going downstairs and saying to my mom, ‘Why are you hiding this picture of an Indian man in the attic?’"
You know, when you go to her family reunions, you just see a rainbow of skin hues and hair textures, but nobody would talk about that elephant in the room.
In fact, it was a photograph of Scarlett's great-grandmother, her hair likely pulled back in a way that can't be seen in the faded black and white portrait.
"My little feathers got singed," Scarlett says. "[My mother] said, 'You put that back where you found it, and don't you ever touch it again.’"
Scarlett explains that her family's origin was a touchy subject for her mother because her ancestors did not want the added scrutiny that came with being both Black and Native American. But Scarlett was determined to know more.
"Fortunately for me, I attended an HBCU, and so we talked a lot about African history, Native American history, and their crossover," she says. "I would come home on weekends and share with my mom. As I shared things with her, she started to open up and started simply with, ‘You didn't tell anybody. You just flew below the radar and kept going.'"
Scarlett learned that raising questions at family gatherings risked soliciting that same tense reaction.
"You know, when you go to her family reunions, you just see a rainbow of skin hues and hair textures, but nobody would talk about that elephant in the room. Nobody. And I made a mistake once of asking, ‘Well, why does aunt Olivia have this skin color?’ I got singed again, so kind of learned the hard way. But those questions were always there."
With the ever-growing knowledge of her own Black and Native American heritage, Scarlett has been dedicated to learning more about the larger history of her people in North Carolina; everything from local trade routes, plantation owners, and Native American sub-tribes, to the endless hunt for more artifacts like tools made from a rock called chert.
Scarlett and her neighbors have recovered arrowheads, tomahawks and other pieces they believe to be Native American tools on their properties.
Scarlett has also been maintaining another piece of land about a mile west of here with what are believed to be about 30 Black and Native American people buried in the same cemetery. River rocks mark Indian graves. Fieldstones mark Black graves.
But Scarlett has found even more. About another mile west, she follows a row of overhead power lines into a tall pine forest.
Scarlett points to eight mounds of rocks, each two to three feet high, placed in almost a perfect circle. She believes they’re more Native American graves.
"We are determined among the family — until we can come up with a better idea from the archeologists — that it’s likely this space is left open so you can have your ceremonies to honor the fallen."
Finally, after one more short hike, there’s another mound of rocks. This one is more than six feet tall, and sits near a junction of two creeks. Perhaps someone important is buried here, Scarlett says.
Scarlett knows there is some level of doubt in her work. It’s been suggested to her that these rock piles are simply that; piles of rocks that farmers made long ago when they cleared their fields. Even an archeologist who came to examine them wasn’t certain.
But Scarlett says she works with what she knows. She does not believe a farmer would take the time to move so many rocks into a wooded area.
"I grew up farming. That takes time. And as my dad would say, ‘We're not wasting sunlight. No, we got to get out here and get whatever in the soil.’"
Without excavating them, there’s no way to know for sure whether these rock mounds contain Native American remains or whether the enslaved Black people who are believed to be buried nearby are Beverly Scarlett’s relatives.
The 61-year-old won’t let anyone disturb them so long as she’s alive. She doesn’t need that level of certainty.
"Because once I hit the land, I knew. I could just feel it."
She makes meaningful eye contact.
"I’m going to tell you this: anyone who wants to argue with me..."
She points to a row of graves in the slave cemetery.
"Get one of those people to come up and say they’re not who [I think] they are."