CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Ramoth AME Zion Church has a saying: It’s a small church with a big heart. Despite a history of over 160 years in the Steele Creek area, Ramoth was still a church very much looking for its past.
"I think you have to know where you come from to get an idea of where you're going,” said Pastor Terrence Jones.
Where the church started and where slaves (and descendants of slaves) were believed to be buried was still a mystery. Potential answers died with the passing of the church's oldest members. "We lost a matriarch and a patriarch in a 10 day span,” Jones said.
Other church elders couldn't pinpoint the location, but they knew it was near the Catawba River. When NewsChannel 36 asked Jones if he knew where it was, he said he had no idea.
Fortunately, Ramoth AME Zion Church’s path eventually crossed with Ted Driggs, a man who was looking for his future.
"These are some old headstones that are strewn through here,” Driggs said in March. He heard about an old cemetery in his Harbor Estates neighborhood and his mission became restoring it.
"I can feel the souls here crying for help. I feel that when I walk in here,” he said.
Albert Watson and Luther Wallace's headstones fascinated him. He found Wallace’s name on census findings from 1910. “His official title was farmer, general farmer. It says he couldn’t read or write,” Driggs said while reading the census document.
All Driggs wanted was permission to clean up the cemetery. "Something is telling me I have to do this,” he said.
But who to ask for permission to restore the cemetery was the question without an answer. It took a bit of searching, a bit of luck, and a spelling difference that brought Driggs and the church together.
Jones had researched the church’s past. He said the cemetery belonged to Rumus Church, but it was pronounced "Ramas" and local historical records called it "Ramah."
"It was all phonics. It just depended upon who you were talking to how the name came out,” Jones said.
Upon moving to its current site, church leaders looked in the Bible and found the word "Ramoth." It stuck, and that, Jones said, is how Rumus became Ramoth while being called Ramah.
But Ted Driggs was still looking for permission to restore it.
NewsChannel 36 asked two Ramoth AME Church elders to come to the cemetery. Was this the place their church elders talked about? Was this the place they'd been to as kids? Was this the place where relatives are buried? Canes in hand, tapping headstones, 80-year-old Janie Lowry and 83-year-old Dorothy McClain made their way through the woods off Shopton Road West.
"I remember the river is right down there. I know that. This is the old cemetery,” Lowry said.
The mystery of Albert Watson's headstone had sudden clarity. "That's my pa-pa's and my momma’s people,” Lowry said. Dorothy McClain said an uncle is buried there too.
NewsChannel 36 called Driggs and asked him to come to the cemetery in the hopes that he might find the answer he'd been looking for.
Driggs introduced himself to Lowry, McClain and Jones. "We thought someone should spruce it up at least for the honor of the people that have fell and died here,” Driggs said. "We just need the permission."
Permission was granted on the spot.
"C'mon, give us a hug,” Driggs said as he embraced McClain and Lowry. A piece of Ramoth AME Zion Church’s history had been reclaimed.
"We need to thank you for doing research and helping connect us with our history because there was a part of our history that was lost,” Jones said to Driggs.
"I felt a part of my ancestors down in there,” Lowry said. “I felt a bond.”
"It's amazing,” said McClain.
"You had a chance to connect the dots,” Jones said. "When you walk up and see Albert Watson and you just kind of know, alright, you're in the right place."
Watsons are also buried behind Ramoth AME Zion Church. “The same Watsons,” Jones said.
Ramoth AME Zion has a saying: It's a small church with a big heart. Its path crossed a man's whose heart was just as big.
"You don't find too many of those,” McClain said.
"To meet a person who cares about people who died 100 years ago, I think that's just extraordinary,” Jones said.
Church congregation members went to the old cemetery site last Saturday, prayed, and laid flowers as a memorial.
Driggs had already been there hours before, cleaning up.