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Old Chapel Hill Cemetery history goes deeper than graves

Old Chapel Hill Cemetery is recognized by the National Registry of 
Historic Places, unlike other cemeteries.
Old Chapel Hill Cemetery is recognized by the National Registry of Historic Places, unlike other cemeteries.

The Old Chapel Hill Cemetery is one of them.

“It is really unusual for cemeteries to be listed on the national register,” said Cheri Szcodronski, executive director of Preservation Chapel Hill.

Preservation Chapel Hill aims to raise awareness about the importance of the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery and the need for its ongoing preservation.

The cemetery is adjacent to South Road on UNC’s campus, and its grave stones and markers represent an immense amount of UNC history.

Notable burials

“Pretty much anybody who was key to the growth of our community is buried there and pretty much anyone who has anything named after them is buried there,” Szcodronski said.

Joseph Caldwell, the University’s first official president, was buried in the cemetery when he died in 1835.

The cemetery was added to the register in 1994 because of its direct connection to the history of Chapel Hill and the University.

“The register provides the cemetery with research opportunities and grants,” said Jane Slater, member of the Chapel Hill Cemetery Advisory Board.

Slater said the process for adding a site to the register takes at least 90 days.

“The cemetery was part of the original land given to the state to found the University,” Slater said.

“It was a cemetery that served both the University and townspeople who were here because of the school.”

Changing traditions

The cemetery represents the evolution of burial traditions over the past 200 years.

“You can see the difference in burial traditions over time,” Szcodronski said.

“You’ll see trends in mortuary art such as lambs for infant graves or the tree of life.”

Many marked graves in the cemetery do not seem like graves at first glance.

“Sometimes you can go out there and you can see some yucca and some field stones together and that’s marking graves,” Szcodronski said.

“They look unmarked if you don’t know what to look for.”

She said these non-permanent plant grave markings were not always an indicator of wealth.

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Wealthy families did not necessarily mark graves with elaborate or expensive monuments.

“We tend to automatically think of marble monuments that are engraved,” she said.

“That’s just not how people thought about death 200 years ago.”

Unmarked graves

Segregation is evident in the cemetery and, thus, in the history of Chapel Hill.

African Americans — some slaves and some free people — were buried in sections A and B of the cemetery, separate from the graves of white people.

“There was a state law that required segregation, which is why the West Chapel Hill Cemetery was started at one point,” Szcodronski said.

Preservation Chapel Hill just completed a five-year project using ground-penetrating radar to do a variety of research on the number of unmarked graves present in the cemetery.

“We now know how many unmarked graves are actually there now,” Szcodronski said.

The majority of the unmarked graves are in the African American section.

“There are 475 unmarked graves — 361 in the African American section,” retired District Court Judge Stanley Peele said.

Peele said he advocated for the monument in the cemetery recognizing the people buried in unmarked graves. That monument has since been removed.

“I’m a long time Chapel Hill resident, and I’ve enjoyed the cemetery for probably over 65 years, and lately as the years went by I became more and more convinced that that was just not right and just not fair,” Peele said about the large number of unmarked graves in the African American section of the cemetery.

The unmarked graves now appear on the updated maps available in the cemetery.

Cemetery vandalism

In 1974, there was a vandalism incident in the east section of the cemetery, where the African-American graves are.

“Something like 50 head stones were turned over or vandalized,” Slater said.

Peele said the vandalism exhibited disrespect for the African American section of the cemetery.

“If I can remember, cars parked right over the eastern section,” Peele said.

“There were folks buried under the cars and people didn’t know that. It was an example of disrespect.”

Monument controversy

A monument honoring the 361 unmarked graves in the African American section was erected in the cemetery on Feb. 4, but has since been removed after controversy over the inscription and the lack of a dedication ceremony.

“The first thing I want is for everyone to calm down and to try and work together,” Peele said regarding the controversy.

“Those that feel hurt or some antagonism to try to forgive those that feel antagonized by.”

The importance of the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery to Peele lies not only in its historical significance, but in its beauty.

“If you walk through the cemetery, it speaks to you,” Peele said.