Efforts underway to clean up historic, overgrown Black cemeteries in the Triad

Piedmont Triad News

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (WGHP) — It is a story FOX8 has been following for months: the lost souls of Black cemeteries here in North Carolina.

We originally showed you the 350 unmarked graves at Oakwood Cemetery in High Point that’ve been discovered through recent research.

FOX8 dug deeper and found there were multiple other Black cemeteries in our area fighting to keep interest alive.

“Oh, it’s real hard. I mean, you know, it’s hard to think that where we were back then,” said James Clyburn, Odd Fellows Cemetery president. “They couldn’t get in here. People were scared to come in.”

Overgrown brush, litter, tree limbs, all covering the grounds here at the Black Odd Fellows Cemetery where hundreds, maybe even thousands, rest in Winston-Salem.

“Well, I found out about it because my grandfather got a plot across the road and we used to come up and help cut the grass and cut through here to bring one of our loved ones to be buried over here in this plot that he had,” Clyburn said.

Decades later the cemetery grounds were left unattended and now in disarray.

“You couldn’t get in here — waist high and you had to cut your way in with all the weeds growing on the ground and high up trees,” Clyburn said.

Clyburn is one of the people who came forward, becoming a cemetery board member. He and other volunteers are now spearheading efforts to help families access their loved ones who are buried here.

It’s a lot of hard work clearing the grounds and many of the people coming out to do that work are older.

More episodes of Forgotten Souls of Black Cemeteries:
Episode 1 | Episode 2 | Episode 3 | Episode 4 | Episode 5 | Episode 6

“There’s a lot of young people that’s riding around doing something. They don’t even know that they have loved ones, great-grandparents or somebody in here,” Clyburn said.

While some college students and Boys Scout troops come out for a service day, no one has fully committed to helping out long-term.

It’s much of the same over at Happy Hill Cemetery, about five miles up the road.

“I just brushed through until we could get some of the weeds down which had grown as tall as I am,” said Maurice Pitts-Johnson, with Happy Hill Cemetery.

It was a place once called Happy Hill Projects. But many families left the area — some not knowing they were leaving behind a piece of their lineage.

“A lot of them have married so the name has changed and so it’s hard to find the relatives or find people who know their grandparents are buried here,” Pitts-Johnson said.

Pitts-Johnson is not just a volunteer. Her grandparents are buried here. She also helps connect family members to their loved ones by putting ads in the newspaper.

“If it helps me to get relatives of persons who are buried here, it would be very important to me. People need to know about their ancestors,” Pitts-Johnson said.

This is not just a one-time cleanup; volunteers are needed at both cemeteries to make sure they don’t fall into disarray.

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