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A new partnership honors the legacy of enslaved people buried in the Barbee Cemetery

"This is a way for us to be authentic in sharing our story.”

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.

The University Commission on History, Race and a Way Forward and the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School are working on a project to honor the history of the approximately 120 enslaved people buried in the Barbee Cemetery at the Rizzo Center in Meadowmont.

Conversations about how to address the needs of the Barbee Cemetery began in October 2020. The project is part of a larger University effort to reckon with its relationship to slavery through telling stories of the University’s past and uplifting underrepresented voices. 

“Our main goal is that we pull in the community and descendants of the enslaved people to advise us about what they want to see happen,” Dawna Jones, assistant dean of students and co-leader of the Barbee Cemetery Project, said. “We really want this to be a community-driven project.”

Kenan-Flagler wants to ensure that the Barbee Cemetery is respectfully and properly acknowledged, Dave Stevens, senior associate dean of business and operations at Kenan-Flagler, said in an email.

The business school expended about $5,000 in consultation with a design firm prior to the commission taking over the project, he said. 

Jones said the commission has established a community advisory board with the NAACP, Orange County Community Remembrance Coalition, Black descendants of the Barbee family and other local community members. They plan to conduct research on the stories of the families buried at the cemetery, and the impact they left on the Orange County community.

Members of the advisory board include Lorie and Dolores Clark, longtime residents of Carrboro and Barbee descendants. Based on research the two have done, they believe some of their family members who were enslaved are buried in the Barbee Cemetery. 

Dolores said her great-grandparents, Toney and Nellie Strayhorn, were the first Black family in Carrboro. They built a one-room log cabin where Dolores still lives today.

“We are delighted that the chancellor thought this was important work and wants to honor the memory and legacy of enslaved people,” Lorie Clark said. “We are actively participating on the commission to research the history of our descendants and make recommendations about what we would like to be shared with the community. And really, this is a way for us to be authentic in sharing our story.”

The first step of the project is gathering research on the history of race at UNC and in the Chapel Hill area, specifically about people enslaved by the Barbee family, Jones said. The commission plans to recommend updates to cemetery signage, grave markers and pathways. They will also develop a curatorial and maintenance plan for the cemetery.

Along with the Barbee Cemetery Project, the commission will make recommendations for the University to continue addressing its relationship with slavery.

Additionally, an oral history project will be conducted with descendants of the Barbee and Hargraves families for distribution to the community. Along with Barbee Cemetery, the Barbee-Hargraves Cemetery off of Fordham Boulevard also holds the burial sites of enslaved people.

“Oftentimes, there are groups created that want to do good in the Black community,” Lorie Clark said. “But they never include people who were harmed, are marginalized or are hurt by what has happened. This is a great opportunity to bring the relatives of the enslaved people, who were buried in the cemetery, into the process to voice what we want and the way that we want this information lifted up.”

The commission encourages the local community to actively participate in the conversations and research about the Barbee Cemetery, Jones said. Monthly commission meetings are open and streamed live to the public.

“The History, Race, and a Way Forward Commission is doing critical work to tell the truthful stories of our University’s past and to ensure that underrepresented voices are always heard,” Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said in a statement. “The Barbee Cemetery Project is part of our University’s story, and I am grateful to the commission and to UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School for their partnership."

The Clarks emphasized the importance of oral and written accounts of Black history in order to understand the impact their family has had on Orange County. 

Lorie Clark said the University as it stands today would not exist without the sacrifices and labor of the enslaved people who make up a significant piece of UNC’s history. 

“We are looking forward to honoring our ancestors and their legacy, which is very important to our family,” Dolores Clark said. “We have been looking forward to this for a long, long time.”

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