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The Daily Tar Heel

UNC historic cemetery reaching capacity

An old gravestone in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery on South Road has fallen over.
An old gravestone in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery on South Road has fallen over.

Now, all the plots in the nearly 7-acre Old Chapel Hill Cemetery are owned.

Debra Lane, an administrative assistant at the Chapel Hill parks and recreation department, said even though all of the plots are already owned, many are still empty.

“There’s a lot of empty plots out there ... it could be years before it’s full with actual bodies,” Lane said.

Some of the people buried in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery include Dean Smith, Paul Green and Charles Kuralt.

Lane said when Smith died his family purchased a plot from people who already owned land in the cemetery. Smith was buried there in February of 2015.

Preservation Chapel Hill and the city of Chapel Hill currently estimate that there are 2,075 graves in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery. Of those, about 1,600 are marked by headstones.

Deans, professors and university presidents, as well as veterans from the Civil War, WWII and other wars are among the marked headstones.

Approximately 475 of the graves are unmarked. These unmarked graves were discovered by studies done by Preservation Chapel Hill and the town of Chapel Hill from 2012-15. These graves are presumed to belong to slaves and were parked on during football games until 1991.

Lt. Josh Mecimore, spokesperson for the Chapel Hill Police Department, said although the cemetery is surrounded by UNC’s campus, it became city property in 1987.

“While the Old Chapel Hill cemetery falls within the city limits of Chapel Hill, and it’s owned by the town of Chapel Hill, the Department of Public Safety typically responds to calls that occur there,” he said. “They will usually alert us to the calls as well.”

History professor Harry Watson said the decision for jurisdiction over the cemetery came down to who would have to pay to get the grass cut. He said UNC questioned why it kept up a cemetery when it was primarily a university.

Watson said there are several “unique inscriptions” on headstones in the cemetery.

An epitaph on Jane Gilbert’s headstone reads, “I was a Tar Heel born and a Tar Heel bred/and here I lie a Tar Heel dead.”

Watson said another inscription was made by Cornelia Phillips Spencer, a prominent white woman who helped UNC open during Reconstruction.

It was made for her black servant who was formerly her family’s slave. The final line reads, “Well done my good and faithful servant.”

Watson said it wasn’t clear if this is the inscription the woman’s family would have chosen for her.

The cemetery is divided into several sections including dividing white people and black people.

“If it’s historically segregated that’s just a fact of history, but if it’s still happening today then that’s really a problem,” senior Dylan Blackwell said. “I think people that are already buried and have chosen to be buried that way, we shouldn’t tamper with that.”

Watson said it’s rare for people to tamper with graves.

“I think, by and large, people don’t mess with cemeteries,” Watson said. “I think there’s a widespread belief that cemeteries should not be disturbed.”

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Janice Ezenwa, a sophomore, visited the cemetery after her professor advised her class to. She said she knew the cemetery was segregated.

“I don’t see why they would move the bodies, I mean, now they’re all resting there,” she said. “They should just leave it.”

Lane said the cemetery is nothing to be afraid of.

“I think most of the imagination comes from people themselves, but it’s nothing really scary about the cemetery out there, it’s a lot of history out there,” Lane said.

“Dean Smith’s out there. Could you just imagine him scaring somebody? No, I don’t think so.”

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