Grave Stones Speak Volumes As Oakwood Cemetery Comes Alive
Posted May 6, 1999
RALEIGH — Much of the Triangle's history can be found in cemeteries. From small family plots in the middle of farmland to Aunt Bee's giant memorial in Siler City, tombstones tell some incredible stories.
Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh holds many of the tales with 40,000 stones marking the landscape of 100 acres, with room for 40,000 more. Some of the names are familiar, some of the names are not even known. Even so, the narratives of the tombstones and memorials read like a giant history book.
"At the end of this row is another block of Gettysburg," says curator Joe Freed as he leads WRAL-TV reporterDavid Crabtreethrough his outdoor museum, where there are stories to tell at every turn.
"Churchill, the son of, he was aged 16 months, 22 days at the time of his death in 1859. Tommie, the son of the same man and wife, died aged 16 months, 22 days in 1865," Freed said.
Oakwood was born because the city needed a place to bury 2,800 Confederate soldiers.
"You go by each one, and they represent a life even though it was cut short in all cases. Someone's family, someone's loved one is represented here by these memorials," Freed said.
The Mordecai family donated the first two and half acres from their plantation to bury the soldiers. From that beginning Oakwood has grown into a 100-acre memorial. It is a home to generals, senators, governors and chief justices.
The first African American was not buried there until 1986. Some of the markers are ornate, and some simple. There are angels and crosses, most are made of stone. However, there is one from 1881 that is made of zinc.
A stroll through the burial ground will reveal all kinds of interesting people.
For example, one interesting marker reads Berrien K. Upshaw. The name may not ring a bell, but his persona sure does.
Upshaw was Margaret Mitchell's second husband; friends called him "Red." Rhett Butler, a name made famous by Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind," was based on Berrien "Red" Upshaw.
Another memorial was built for the person known as the Oakwood Princess. Rachel Blythe was a Cherokee who married A.G. Bauer, the architect of the Governor's mansion.
Even though vandals have taken part of her face, it is still evident she was a beautiful woman.
Blythe died in childbirth. Her 39-year-old grief-stricken husband spent the next year building, by hand, a replica of the Greek temple of Dianne. The work would be his last.
"When he completed it, he wrote a letter to his sister and said 'My work at Oakwood is now complete,'" Freed said. "'You will be proud of this monument,' and he committed suicide."
The stones and Oakwood's mausoleum have told stories of Raleigh's young and old for more than 100 years, and with all the room to grow, volumes more have yet to be written.
Freed is a marvelous guide, and his next tour is set for Sunday, May 23. Anyone who would like more information can call832-6077.