WADESBORO, N.C. -- On the outskirts of this weathered town that thousands bypass each year on the way to the N.C. coast is a five-acre piece of rolling, craggy land that tells of African-American life in these parts since the mid-1800s.
Until recently, those stories were virtually covered up, the lore that 1,500 cemetery headstones can tell tangled in bramble, broom straw and a forest of young pines.
Now the cemetery, bounded by Madison and Henry streets southwest of downtown Wadesboro, has new life, with a group called the Friends of Old Westview Cemetery persistently working to uncover the past.
On this Martin Luther King Day holiday, a group of UNC Charlotte students from the Africana Studies department will rake, cut and clear, and then begin to document each headstone for an online database.
"Cemeteries are a source of history, of information that we can utilize to try to instill pride in people," said India Solomon, a UNCC senior who is leading the cleanup project. "This is what Dr. King would want to us do - spend the day in service and pump a new pulse into the history of these people."
Old Westview was disappearing from plain view in 2001, when Rose Sturdivant Young came home from Washington, D.C., to bury her mother, Ethel Sturdivant, in the family lot.
Her father, Lester Sturdivant, had bought 10 plots from Thomas Kluttz, an African-American businessman who owned and sold most of the lots in Old Westview. Her father was buried there in 1981; her brother, Edward, in 1997.
Her great-grandmother, Celestia Hagins, was buried in the cemetery in 1912. Her great-great- grandmother, Priscilla Sturdivant, born into slavery in 1831, is buried there, too, as is her step-grandmother, Nider Robinson, who died in 1960 at age 108.
But when it came time to bury her mother, they could barely find the family lot.
"I was devastated, horrified at what we found all over the cemetery," Young said.
Headstones had toppled off bases, and many graves were caved in. Hundreds of graves were lost to nature.
"You couldn't see where the cemetery was for all the trees and brush," she said. "A lot of the families paid people to keep up their plots. When daddy died in 1981, my brother Ed would go over and clean up, but now he's buried there."
Young formed a board that includes Wadesboro town council member Lawrence Gatewood, who is black, and former Wadesboro Mayor Bobby Little, who is white. She recruited a genealogist to start recording the headstones. She's held galas to raise money for the cleanup. She hired a surveyor to define the borders, which are within Wadesboro.
The board also erected two Old Westview cemetery signs. They hope to get the land placed on the National Register of Historical Places.
Board members have appealed to officials and foundations for grants. They bought a heavy-duty mower and hired two men to begin cleaning up. They've uncovered graves of black lawyers, doctors, teachers, school principals, cooks, domestic workers and carpenters.
One grave belongs to T.W. Bennett, principal of the Lilesville School when Gatewood was a student there. It's now called the T.W. Bennett Elementary School.
"Many of these graves belong to the movers and shakers of the African American community," Gatewood said. "When I saw T.W. Bennett's grave in such an alarming state, it really saddened me. This is a worthy project."
On day last week, Little and Gatewood roamed the cemetery, pleased by what they saw.
"In the short term, we just need to get the cemetery cleaned up and we're getting there," said Little, a lawyer. "But the long haul is going to be an altogether different challenge."
They hope that's where the UNCC students will come in.
The students and Dr. Akin Ogundiran, chair of Africana Studies, will arrive at the cemetery at 11 a.m. today, and work for about six hours.
A vein of rich history
Solomon, the UNCC student leading the project, saw a TV story about the cemetery, which touched a nerve.
She'd recently visited her own family's cemetery in Lynchburg, S.C., where she learned her great-great-grandfather, Sam Solomon, had been born into slavery and established the cemetery in 1911 on land his father had bought just after the Civil War.
"A lot of people don't realize the rich history of their families," India Solomon said. "And if they don't take care of their cemeteries and try to find out who's there, they'll never know.
"It is important for the people of Wadesboro and North Carolina to know what happened before us."