Group working to find lost graves in Old Salem

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Located in Old Salem, St. Philips Moravian Church is the oldest African-American church building still standing in North Carolina.

In 1859, when members of the church thought the nearby graveyard was full, they created a little-known second site near the present day intersection of East Salem Avenue and Cemetery Street in Winston-Salem.

"The persons buried here were the slaves that built Salem​," said current St. Philips Moravian Church member Conrad Mitchell.

The Second African-American Graveyard contains 50 recumbent stones with the names of departed enslaved and freed African-Americans. But there are other stones where names have faded with time. Some stones in the graveyard are just that, ordinary rocks that show the possible location of a grave.

Peggy Crouse is the Graveyard Committee chairperson. Crouse said there is a map with the names of the people buried in the Second African-American Graveyard, but the exact plot locations are unknown.

"Everyone wants to know where their loved ones are," Crouse said.

A mapping team is working to solve the problem. Keith Seramur is a geophysicist. He walks back and forth, across the graveyard with ground penetrating radar. When the radio signal returns to the receiver, Seramur can see where the soil has been disturbed. It's a good indicator that he has found an unmarked or "lost grave."

"When you get to do jobs like this, it's rewarding," Seramur said. "You get to restore some of the history of America."

Seramur marks the plot with a white flag. Later he will go back and place a magnetic nail in the same spot where he placed a flag. A magnetic nail will help volunteers locate the graves in case wind destroys the small white flags. Seramur estimates the Second African-American Graveyard contains 200 unmarked graves.

Dorothy Pettus is a member of St. Philips Moravian Church. She is thrilled that so many final resting places have been found. Pettus believes mapping the graveyard will answer a lot of questions.

"This project will allow us to know the names of the people that are buried here so we can relay that information to people," Pettus said. "We get calls sometimes weekly, monthly from people all over the country looking for their ancestors."

Crouse adds the goal of the project is to bring the Second African-American Graveyard in line with the more recognizable God's Acre at Old Salem.

"Moravians believe in the equality of death and we are trying to get both graveyards to be comparable so you can't distinguish one from the other."

The next step is to raise money so each grave can be marked and named. Plus a fence and archway will be built. Plans also call for a parking lot at the intersection of East Salem Avenue and Cemetery Street so families can visit the Second African-American Graveyard.

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