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West Chapel Hill Cemetery Project to connect community with cemetery's history

The West Chapel Hill Cemetery is pictured on Monday, July 10, 2023. Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation staff are replacing the fence around the cemetery and installing new signage.

This month, Town staff and community members are starting work on the West Chapel Hill Cemetery Project — which aims to "connect community members with the history of the cemetery and with the history of community members buried at the site," per a Town of Chapel Hill press release.

The West Chapel Hill Cemetery, located next to the Village West neighborhood, was established as a burial ground for local Black residents after a 1947 state law mandated cemeteries be segregated by race.

Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation staff are replacing the fence around the cemetery and installing new signage, which will have no impact on surrounding communities, according to the press release.

Unlike Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery — the formerly designated white cemetery — there are 199 graves or burial sites in West Chapel Hill Cemetery, but only 37 marked burial sites, Molly Luby, the community history coordinator at the Chapel Hill Public Library, said.

She said the cemetery is considered "forgotten" because Memorial Cemetery began selling segregated plots to Black residents in 1958. The final burial in the cemetery took place in 1998, she said. 

“There are a lot of really rich family stories that we are interested in learning more about with this particular cemetery,” Luby said.

This summer, Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation has been putting in improvements to the site such as a new fence and signage. Luby said this is a launching point for the larger community history project and that this brings potential for the project to honor those buried in the cemetery.

Debra Lane, the administrative coordinator in the Division of Parks and Recreation, has been managing Chapel Hill cemeteries for almost 16 years. Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation and Chapel Hill Community History are working to complete the property maintenance and reparative history portions of the West Chapel Hill Cemetery Project.

Lane and other staff members will be launching a website for the cemetery where family members can upload photographs of their family members and share stories about their loved ones, Luby said.

Lane said the reason she wanted to do maintenance on this space was because people would not recognize it as a cemetery, and would walk their dogs in the area.

She said she put up numbers for the plots in the West Chapel Hill Cemetery and then put up “no dog” signs. When the cemetery started receiving more funds, she suggested the fence and new signage that is currently going up.

“The goal was just to, you know, put up a fence and signage, but then all this other stuff started happening,” Lane said. “It was unexpected to me, you know, because to me, it was just fixing it up, just like the other cemeteries.”

Shay Stevens, the community relations manager for the Town, said she has been working with Luby and Chapel Hill Community History to share the project’s work with surrounding communities — especially those who may have familial connections to the cemetery.

“It’s really an opportunity for us to enlist the help of community members,” she said.


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