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Black Bottom Cemetery rising again

Posted July 28, 2008

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— It all starts in a forgotten cemetery, where trees whisper stories above decaying crypts and tombs in a small Beaufort County town off the Pungo River.

"It's called Black Bottom Cemetery," Belhaven Mayor Adam O'Neal said. "It's probably the oldest cemetery in town."

The historically black cemetery is overgrown and all but abandoned, but O'Neal and cemetery officials say their community is determined to honor those buried there who helped Belhaven grow.

"We're just trying to do the best we can with what's happened," cemetery administrator Marie Whitaker said.

"A lot of the old generations has died, and the young generation living here don't care," Velma Murray, another cemetery administrator, said.

Whitaker can see her family's history laid out in the cemetery: "My grandfather was buried here in 1919" and has been joined by her mother and father, grandmother, brother, sister, brother-in-law and two children, Whitaker said.

The graves contain heroes from World Wars I and II and residents from the turn of the century. Dozens of unmarked graves scallop the earth; they are simply indentations in the ground.

"Our town can't have a future if we don't respect our past," O'Neal said. "Our goal here is to get this into a condition we're proud of."

The town of Belhaven has pitched in, helping the civic group that owns the cemetery bring it back from the past.

"Where I'm standing right now, you literally couldn't even stand here six months ago," O'Neal said. "There were so many vines and so much overgrowth that you couldn't even walk where you're walking now."

The brush has been cut back, and simple white crosses placed to recognize the unmarked graves.

One cross marks the resting place of Eva Narcissus Boyd, or Little Eva – a 1960s pop-music star who sang "The Loco-Motion." See her story.

The greatest task in restoring Black Bottom Cemetery, though, will be to replace the tombs and crypts that have decayed over time.

"When I came out and saw the state of the vaults and the state of the graveyard, it touched my  heart," O'Neal said. "The town manager and I came out, and the condition of it was so bad that we both left near about crying."

Administrators say it's hard to place blame for the deterioration of the cemetery. Over the years, families moved away, seeking jobs and a better life, while town fathers paid little attention to the all-black cemetery on the east side of town.

"I just think they don't care," Whitaker said.

The state Office of History and Archives is training local volunteers, including some from a local Masonic lodge, in how to restore the cemetery. East Carolina University graduate student Jonathan Smith has worked to map all the graves.

Once restoration is complete, Belhaven will take over maintenance of the cemetery.

While the clean-up continues, Murray said she's comforted that the condition of the graves matters little to her relatives and others buried in Black Bottom Cemetery.

"If they did right, they're in heaven," Murray said.


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  • daMoFo Jul 29, 2008

    The 1950's were not 40 years ago. 40 years ago was 1968 and by that year, all legal forms of segregation had been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

  • Clinton Jul 29, 2008

    cemeterystudent hit the nail on the head imho. Remember 40 short years ago - segregation was alive and well in the US. My grandmother recently passed away and was buried in VA. When my sisters and I were going through some of her papers - we came across her agreement for her burial plots. It states in black and white (no pun intended) that they (my grandparents) are going to be buried in an all-white section of the cemetery. And these plots were bought in the early 50's after my mother was born.
    Times were different back then. And it wasn't that long ago which is the kicker. As someone said - lines die out, people move away, and if this was "just" a black cemetery - the city/town is not going to worry about it.
    The important thing is people ARE stepping up to reclaim a piece of history that was almost lost.

  • cemeterystudent Jul 29, 2008

    squirrelingdervish - some families were, but many of the families have moved out of the area, or lines had died out. The cemetery is huge, and there seem to have been few family plots, by and large individuals were buried in rough rows. This made it difficult for family to care to for all of their family member's graves. Some have attempted to do so, but it's a difficult place to work.

    ifcdirector - the city has stepped in and started providing the same services to the historically black cemetery as they do (and have done for decades) for the historically white cemetery. The disrepair of the cemetery is as much due to North Carolina's history of segregation as it is any lack of maintenance by family members.

  • daMoFo Jul 29, 2008

    "...the young generation living here don't care," Velma Murray, another cemetery administrator, said."

    Yep, that pretty much explains it. Hardly the fault of the town. My family goes to the cemetary a couple times a year to tend to graves, mow grass, etc.

  • Adelinthe Jul 29, 2008

    This story was sad and wonderful at the same time, wasn't it. So blessed to hear when folks rise to honor the dead.

    Cemeteries can be such peaceful places. There is one in my hometown (Erie, PA) where there's a little pond with swans. When a teenager, I use to go sit there and read Nancy Drew books.

    Then when my children were young school children, we went to the cemetery in Cary to picnic and practice math skills. There I taught them now to subtract one number from another to get a person's age along with the lesson of respect and honor of the resting places of the dead. And...I didn't have to watch them as closely for traffic.

    It may sound odd and morbid to some, but the children really enjoyed this, once becoming sad when they saw a family had three young children die on the same date leading us to wonder about their fate.

    And you know what, I think the spirits of the departed might have enjoyed the sound of the laughter of children being among them again.

  • districtcadvocate Jul 28, 2008

    David Crabtree thank you for the story of Little Eva and the Black Bottom Cemetery.

    For some of us the only past we can identify with are the final resting place of our ancestors.

  • Raleigh Jul 28, 2008

    graveyards and golf courses are a big waste of land. human and animal bodies should be creamated.

  • smitty Jul 28, 2008

    I saw the headline and the first thing that came to mind was zombies.

  • Myword Jul 28, 2008

    As a cemetery volunteer myself I Salute! the folks who got this done! Excellent!

  • 1Moms_View Jul 28, 2008

    It's always sad to see old cemeteries that are abandoned and not cared for at all. The history is lost. I'm trying now to coorindate a volunteer group to maintain and restore a cemetery from the late 1700s and early 1800s where my 4th great grandmother was buried. I've been given directions and once the weather cools down plan to visit the area.
    So many abandoned ones that were overgrown have been plowed through and developed over.