Those visiting Chapel Hill cemeteries have a ghost of a chance of finding every person buried there — more than 500 potential unmarked graves have been located in the town’s graveyards.
The town’s Cemeteries Advisory Board, through a partnership with Preservation Chapel Hill, has discovered the unmarked historic graves in three of its cemeteries.
Brenda Heindl, Preservation Chapel Hill’s program coordinator, said the organization contracted a private environmental consulting firm to conduct both ground-penetrating radar and electrical resistivity to detect potential unmarked graves.
“The radar is able to analyze the density of soil below the surface and by measuring the density, can make images of where potential grave sites were located,” Heindl said.
According to a report by the board, more than 60 unmarked graves were discovered at the West Chapel Hill Cemetery and more than 50 more at the Barbee-Hargraves Cemetery. More than 350 of the town’s 500 unmarked graves are located in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery on UNC’s campus.
Heindl said these unmarked graves were found in only three sections of the cemetery, located on the western side — from the gazebo to the barrier between the cemetery and Winston Residence Hall.
“The whole section is unmarked,” said Marguerite Hutchins, a member of the advisory board. “Those sections could be very valuable if there is nothing there.”
Two of the three sections were historically reserved for African-Americans, and the other is the oldest section in the cemetery, Heindl said.
“It was not unusual in most of America for cemeteries up until the mid- to late 20th century to be segregated,” she said.
The first grave was dug in 1798 and Heindl said because of the cemetery’s age, many of those buried in the segregated part of the cemetery were likely slaves.
“We will never know who those people are, only that somebody is there,” said Butch Kisiah, director of the Parks and Recreation Department and a liaison to the Cemeteries Advisory Board.
But Heindl said some names of those buried in the unmarked plots are known, like Rev. Lewis Hackney, a prominent African-American from Chapel Hill’s past.
And she said the graves might not have always been unmarked — a lot of vandalism took place in the 1970s and 1980s.
Cars would park on the unmarked graves for football games until restrictions were implemented in 1991, she said.
In the past, some graves might have been marked with wooden markers or field stones that likely have not survived, said Heindl.
But some grave markers remain — in the form of yucca plants, which have been used as grave markers in the past.
Many yucca plants are scattered across the unmarked sections of the cemetery, and these plants may be remnants of grave markers, Heindl said.
Kisiah said there are no plans to bring in markers for the graves — because altering the cemetery may risk its place in the National Register of Historic Places.
Heindl said Preservation Chapel Hill highlights the number of people buried in the unmarked sections of the cemetery during an annual Halloween-time tour.
“It is really moving to realize how many people were buried in close proximity. We try to emphasize the people who were part of the community,” she said. “These unmarked graves are a whole lot of voices we don’t hear because we don’t know who is buried there.”
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