Sanford, N.C. — A small band of volunteers is working to restore a Lee County cemetery that dates to the early 1800s and contains the graves of hundreds of slaves.
The burial ground, near the Buffalo Presbyterian Church on Carthage Street, had fallen into disrepair in recent decades and was gradually overtaken by ivy and a pine forest.
"It just hurt my heart," said Lisa Martin Sanders, who stumbled upon the cemetery last April.
Sanders and her aunt were looking for the grave of W.B. Wicker, who founded a school in Sanford many years ago. They wandered the area for a couple hours before peering into the woods.
"I've lived in Sanford all my life. I never knew there were graves here," she said.
At least 1,500 African-Americans are buried in the cemetery, but Sanders said the total could be double that.
"I would say a majority of them buried here are slaves," she said, noting some marked graves predate the Civil War.
Property records show the cemetery belonged to five predominantly black churches, two of which no longer exist, she said.
After receiving permission from the other three churches, Sanders and two friends, Beatrice Heck Adams and Charlie Rascoe, cleared brush from the graveyard and cut down several trees to reclaim the site.
"These people belonged to someone, and they were not able to come here and visit or anything. They were being dishonored," Sanders said.
She is trying to create a nonprofit to raise funds to maintain the cemetery, which she hopes to rechristen Black Heritage Community Cemetery, including erecting a wrought-iron fence.
"This is a history lesson. It is for me," she said.