Belhaven, N.C. — 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.