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Unmarked graves of enslaved people demonstrate Chapel Hill's dark past

The Christopher and William Barbee Family Cemetery pictured on Jan. 24, 2020. The cemetery was active in the 18th and 19th century and where William Barbee and his relatives were buried. Nearly 100 enslaved people are buried in unmarked graves.

Approximately three miles from UNC’s campus, nearly 100 enslaved people are buried in largely unmarked graves at a historic family cemetery.

The Christopher and William Barbee Family Cemetery is one part of a 27-acre tract known as the Meadowmont estate. The property was gifted to UNC in 1988.

Located only a short walk from the Rizzo Center, a 183-room boutique hotel owned by the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, the exact details of the cemetery’s ownership and maintenance were unclear to the University when The Daily Tar Heel began investigating the property.

During the 19th century, the land was part of the Barbee family plantation. Christopher Barbee, the namesake of the cemetery, was a wealthy slave owner and the University’s largest original land donor. His son, William Barbee, who died in 1857, served as a steward and superintendent of UNC buildings and grounds.

There are 120 graves in the cemetery, according to a report published by the Research Laboratories of Anthropology at UNC in 1996 after an assessment of the Meadowmont property. Only about 20 are marked. 

UNC Media Relations Manager Kate Luck said UNC has an “access and maintenance agreement” with the family for the property, but told the Daily Tar Heel in an email that “there was a lot of confusion” around the specifics of the agreement.  However, Luck said the cemetery is located on UNC’s endowment property and maintained by UNC’s grounds staff.

“Most references to the cemetery indicate that it is on private land and that those who wish to visit should contact the Rizzo Center,” she said. 

“I doubt anyone will be able to speak to this as nobody was familiar with the property until we did some digging for records.”

'Not offending anybody'

The two most clearly-maintained grave markers belong to William Barbee and his wife, Gaskey. Approximately 20 graves for assumed family members are marked by field stones or depressions.

A separate marker installed nearby, which indicates that the cemetery was active during the 18th and 19th centuries, states that it contains approximately 120 graves. However, the plaque makes no mention of the 100 enslaved people buried there.

A sign by the Christopher and William Barbee Family Cemetery on Jan. 24, 2020. The cemetery was active in the 18th and 19th century and where William Barbee and his relatives were buried. Nearly 100 enslaved people are buried in unmarked graves and the sign makes no mention of them.

Rizzo Center General Manager Brent Haste said there are plans to install a new marker that properly contextualizes the cemetery while “not offending anybody.” Haste said the new plaque is a priority, but said there is currently no timeline for when the marker will be installed.

The 1996 UNC archeology survey mapped a total of 120 graves in the cemetery. The report also identified an additional two dozen potential graves in the southwest portion of the site, obscured by a dirt road and wood piles.

“Given the relatively large number of graves, some, if not most, probably represent Barbee slaves,” the report stated. “William Barbee was one of the largest slave owners in the region.”

The report made several recommendations for preserving the cemetery: clearly marking its boundaries, maintaining its appearance and listing it with the State Historic Preservation Office.

“The trash piles that have accumulated within the cemetery should be removed,” the report said. “Similarly, some thought should be given to repairing William Barbee’s tombstone and restoring it to an upright position.”

Haste confirmed that UNC grounds staff maintains the cemetery to remove any trash, leaves and tree roots from burial spots. Following the 1996 report, William Barbee’s cracked grave was glued back together. 

While the report indicated the age range of each individual enslaved person assumed to be buried in the approximately 100 other graves, Haste said they have no actual record of the people.

'How these processes play out'

UNC history professor William Sturkey was shocked when he learned about the cemetery.

“With all the intense emotional reaction over the fall of an abstract monument to slave-owning soldiers, you might think people might be up in arms about actual bodies in the ground that have gone unremembered,” he said in reference to recent controversy regarding Silent Sam.

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Sturkey said he has not seen anything about further research or preservation efforts related to the cemetery being done, and doubts that most faculty or administrators at UNC know about the cemetery.

“That’s how these processes play out. When things are inconvenient, you just let a forest consume them and move on,” he said.

While the Barbee Cemetery is owned by the University, there are three other historic cemeteries in Chapel Hill: The Barbee-Hargraves Cemetery, Old Chapel Hill Cemetery and West Chapel Hill Cemetery. 

All three cemeteries are predominantly African American cemeteries, but the Barbee-Hargraves Cemetery, located near the Greenwood subdivision of Chapel Hill, is the only one thought to contain the graves of enslaved people.

Barbee-Hargraves was in use from 1790 to 1915. It is believed to contain the burial sites of 40 to 50 enslaved people and their free descendants.

The cemetery was given to the Town of Chapel Hill in 1958, and by the late 1970s, had fallen into disrepair. On a page of the Town’s website noting its preservation efforts, it credits Chapel Hill resident Margaret Robbins Davis for calling for a marker to be placed in the cemetery before it "passes into oblivion, much as its occupants did, who were considered only three-fifths of a human."

Debra Lane, administrative assistant for cemetery maintenance, said the Town’s Cemetery Advisory Board worked with the Department of Parks and Recreation and Preservation of Chapel Hill to install the marker and conduct research on all three of its historic cemeteries in 2011.

She said there are not currently any additional preservation plans for the cemetery.

'See the light of day'

Melissa Timo, historic cemetery specialist for the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology, said private and public cemeteries are equally protected under state law. However, the process of enacting provisions in the law varies among the two.

Timo works with the North Carolina Cemetery Survey, a program that tracks data on cemeteries and serves as a resource to protect against threats such as urban development, vandalism and neglect. In the law, Timo said, neglect is defined as a cemetery being “left untended or uncared for through carelessness or intention, and lacking a caretaker.”

When a person believes a historic cemetery is being neglected, Timo said there are a few ways to proceed: reaching out to the media, contacting the cemetery’s preservation board or contacting the county sheriff, who has jurisdiction under the law to intercede in a case of cemetery neglect.

In the case of historic cemeteries with graves for enslaved people, Timo said the issue of money often prevents sufficient markers or plaques from being installed. Due to a lack of grants and state funding, the cost typically falls on local communities.

“It is tricky — but at the end of the day it’s worth it, because these stories need to see the light of day,” she said.

Currently, Timo said there is no comprehensive data on how many historic cemeteries there are in North Carolina. There is even less accurate data for the burial sites of enslaved people. 

Timo, hired by the state archaeology office in April last year, said she is currently working to update the system and make such data more accessible.

“With 60 years of different styles of record-keeping, it’s not very searchable right now,” she said. “It’s not going to reflect an accurate number of how many historic cemeteries there are in the state anyways, because we have far fewer recorded than actually exist.”

Sturkey, who has been vocal in criticizing UNC’s handling of the Silent Sam controversy, said he doesn’t believe discussions of the Barbee cemetery come up among administration.

“But that’s part of a conscious process that was decided 20-plus years ago, or even longer, to always take the tact of disappearing difficult histories from our broader collective campus history,” he said. “I guess you really can erase history — this is history that has been erased, quite literally.”


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