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March 6, 2021

Oak Grove Freedman’s Cemetery … 10 years ago

By David Setzer

Special to the Salisbury Post

“I knelt by the graves of my parents . . . a black stump at the head of my mother’s grave was all that remained of a tree my father had planted . . . I seemed to hear my father’s voice come from it, bidding me not to tarry till I reached freedom.”

These words are engraved in the granite stones that border portions of the Oak Grove Freedman’s Cemetery at the corner of Church and Liberty streets a few blocks from the heart of Salisbury.

The cemetery is a beautiful lawn these days, surrounded by walls of granite topped in portions by sections of granite engraved with words of poetry and musings from the heartfelt feelings of former slaves whose final resting place is this lawn brought to a final recognition by a concerned and committed group of African-American and white citizens of Salisbury 10 years ago. Their efforts were spearheaded by Denny Mecham, former executive director of the Waterworks Visual Arts Center, who walked by the site as part of her regular path home and whose imagination and planning skills led the effort to bring the cemetery into an artistic realty.

Located across the street from Soldiers’ Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church, the cemetery has stood for over 200 years. Deeded in 1770, it was established to serve the needs of Salisbury’s African-American population, both enslaved and free. Sadly, over the past 125 years, portions of the site were destroyed and markers removed. Though this burial ground was often neglected, it was not forgotten.

In 1999, a group of interested citizens and organizations joined together in a partnership to honor the cemetery site and those buried there with an appropriate remembrance. To spur things along, a $10,000 grant was requested from the Blanche & Julian Robertson Family Foundation. Joining in the effort was the African-American Cultural Center, East End Neighbohood Association, First Calvary Baptist Church, City of Salisbury, Livingstone College, Mt. Zion Baptist Church, Moore’s Chapel AME Zion Church, Trinity Presbyterian Church, United Arts Council of Rowan, the Waterworks Visual Arts Center (serving as fiscal agent and facilitator) and West End Neighborhood Association.

Three public meetings were planned for the fall of 1998, and interest in the project began to grow. One of the most interesting aspects of the project was securing the services of Bob Milia, a nationally known thermal imaging expert, who did a thermographic survey of the site and identified approximately 144 graves. The imaging also revealed critical information on what areas could be used for a memorial without violating burial sites.

The early stages of the project involved getting the word out to sculptors and designers around the country to elicit ideas and concepts for how the memorial would look, etc. The three “finalists” chosen from the 67 who responded from the nationwide search were invited to come and visit, get a feel for the Salisbury community and the African-American leadership. The finalists were given about a month and a half to complete their designs, drawings, etc. and present them to the deciding committee, chaired by Dr. Catrelia Hunter, retired administrator from Livingstone College.

The various designs for the memorial all were thought out with care and concern, reflecting the history and associated tragedy of the years gone by.

In reading back over the files and newspaper record of the project, it is a shame that some of the more dramatic aspects of the various designs could not be included in the finished project due to space, time and funding. But what has been included is dramatic and deserves a visitor’s attention and respect.

The curiosity of the Waterworks’ Denny Mecham and her subsequent investigation about the property got “the ball rolling,” so to speak. She saw this grassy hillside separated from the Old English Cemetery by a wall and wondered what it was. She found out that it was a former cemetery for slaves and freedmen and had been the source of questions for a number of years. Some friction in the community had been raised when Liberty Street was cut through early in the century, and members of the African-American citizenry had wished to have appropriate markers for the property, but they never materialized.

Mecham’s probing for answers to her questions fostered more conversations and discussion between the Waterworks, Soldiers’ Memorial Church and the City of Salisbury to join forces and determine what the community and the neighbors would like to see done with the property. Mecham led the discussion about what the cemetery should be called, and the consensus was that a memorial honoring the named and unnamed, the enslaved and the free African-Americans buried on that hill should be used. Research showed that in addition to the old slave cemetery and freedman’s cemetery, maps have at various times labeled it the Oak Grove Cemetery. Taking the variations into account, the committee merged the names and decided on a combination —Oak Grove and Freedmans, both names carved in perpetuity in Rowan County pink granite in the cemetery wall.

It was 10 years ago — a flash in the annals of time, but an important event in the community history of Salisbury. Don’t fail to make it one of the stops in your tour of our special city.

 

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