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Chapel Hill Cemetery will dedicate unmarked graves

The words of George Moses Horton or William Shakespeare might adorn the redesigned monument to the African-Americans buried in unmarked graves in the Chapel Hill Cemetery.

Members of the Chapel Hill Town Council met with community members and representatives from the town’s cemetery advisory committee Tuesday to discuss changes to the monument and details of a public unveiling ceremony tentatively planned for Sept. 18.

After the previous monument, which was installed Feb. 2, received criticism from the public for not having a public dedication and for its placement being largely unnoticed, the piece was removed so the Town could hear input from the public.

The monument was also criticized for having too modern a design for the cemetery and because some felt the words inscribed on it — “Here rest in honored glory 361 American persons of color known but to God” — did not properly honor the 361 African-Americans buried in unmarked graves in the cemetery.

“I think we all had the consensus that it’s not so much the wording that was on the monument but the lack of community involvement,” said the Rev. Robert Campbell, president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP.

He said a new community group working on the monument met three times and concluded that a service ought to take place in the fall, which would involve community members as well as university students, staff and administrators.

The group also proposed designing informational tables that would accompany the monument and give historical context about the cemetery’s segregated history, including a timeline.

“Out of those meetings, we all had homework to go back and find more information about the cemetery and the families that are the descendents of those who are in the cemetery, and how to connect those together so we can hear their voices,” Campbell said.

“We began to understand there was more interest in the old cemetery as far as recognizing and identifying who was there.”

Jane Slater, a member of the town’s cemetery advisory committee, said the committee has long been working on a full list of those who were buried in the cemetery, which has so far been compiled in a list available online.

Campbell also said members of the group proposed new phrasing for the words on the monument. One was a quote from William Shakespeare: “The evil that men do lives after them: The good is oft interred with their bones.”

Another was from George Moses Horton, the enslaved poet who worked on UNC’s campus and became the first African-American published in the country: “Thus we, like birds, retreat / To groves, and hide from ev’ry eye; / our slumb’ring dust will rise and meet / its morning in the sky.”

Jim Orr, director of Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation, said the new monument might use different material that looks more weathered and feature a plaque with a new inscription. The process of redesigning the monument and the informational tables could take two to three months once the Town has decided on the monument’s design, he said.

Cecilia Moore, a UNC campus historian, said the cemetery was created in the late 1790s and the first recorded African-American burial in the cemetery took place in 1853.

“The cemetery as a whole really encapsulates community history and allows us to tell stories of people who have worked for the University — from President (William) Friday to the unknown, enslaved African-Americans who worked for the University,” she said.

“It gives us the opportunity to tell many stories that we can do and should do.”

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