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The Daily Tar Heel

475 unmarked graves discovered at Old Chapel Hill Cemetery

Several feet away, a new sign stands as a different kind of tribute — an updated map.

The section of the cemetery adjacent to South Road and Winston Dorm contains almost 500 unmarked graves, which, until recently, were neither labeled nor honored.

“We knew there were people here, but we didn’t know how many or where,” Chapel Hill Cemeteries Advisory Board member Mary Hayes said. “This looks like park land, but it really isn’t, but it’s a very beautiful, serene place.”

These graves, indicated only by jagged stones scattered amid uneven grass and fallen leaves, were discovered with ground-penetrating radar in a project that began in 2012, Hayes said.

The Cemeteries Advisory Board and Preservation Chapel Hill contracted with archaeologists from Environmental Services Inc., and the Boone-based geological corporation Seramur and Associates, PC.

“They had these machines — it was like a lawn mower with electrical stuff attached,” Hayes said.

Each blip in the machines’ radar indicated a place where the ground had been disturbed — in this case, for the purpose of burying someone — for the past hundred years. Soon, the stretch of grass became a sea of flags marking each of the 475 unmarked gravesites they found.

This is the African-American section of the formerly segregated cemetery. For people who couldn’t afford tombstones, designating graves with unmarked stones was a common practice, but it led to problems later on. People used the section for parking during the 1980s, Preservation Chapel Hill Executive Director Cheri Szcodronski said, and few of the stones remain in their original locations.

“Not only were these people excluded and forgotten in life but also in death,” Szcodronski said in an email. “Although we’ll never be able to put names to these 475 people, we can at least recognize their final resting place and tell their story.”

That’s why members of the Cemeteries Advisory Board felt like it was important to make the graves known.

“Out of respect, too, for the people who are buried there,” Cemetery Advisory Board staff Robert Minick said. “Even though we don’t know who they are, at least somebody’s recognizing that they’re there.”

Szcodronski said the graves have been marked with rebar wire, which allows them to be located with a metal detector.

Hayes said the board hopes to mark the graves somehow, though it’s unknown who the graves belong to.

“That’s part of history; sometimes you’re not going to know it all,” she said.


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