Man talks about back-breaking work his father did as digger at Winston-Salem’s historic Black cemeteries

Piedmont Triad News

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (WGHP) — There are multiple cemeteries in our area where Black people exclusively rest, and many don’t even know they exist.

The one’s who do have done the back-breaking work to ensure they rest easily.

In this episode of Forgotten Souls of Black Cemeteries, we’re introducing you to Winston-Salem native Earl Byers, whose father was the designated digger of a couple of Black cemeteries in Winston-Salem.

“In 1903, [my father] came from South Carolina, and he didn’t have a job and a man got him to help him work and help him dig graves,” Byers said.

That was Byers’ father, Amos Byers.

More than 70 years later, Byers, now 83 years old, is reflecting on his days as a young boy watching his father dig graves at Happy Hill Cemetery in Winston-Salem.

Reporter: “How fast could your dad dig a grave?”

“My dad was pretty good on digging them graves,” Byers responded. “I would say two to three hours, you know. It might not have been that long.”

Sometimes his dad would let he and his brother help.

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

“Most of the time he had us to cover them up more than digging the graves,” he said.

As he got older and bigger, his dad would eventually pass him the shovel.

“I dug one or two by myself,” Byers said.

Reporter: “Was it kind of a challenge for you?

“Not really because I had seen it so much,” Byers responded.

He admits, it was back-breaking work.

“You had to dig the grave and then you had to take it and throw the dirt out so you could dig some more,” he said.

But to Byers and has father, it was just a job.

“It didn’t never get me down. I never saw my dad complain. I don’t know him to complain,” Byers said.

His father dug graves at Happy Hill until the cemetery was full sometime after the 1940s. Then, he would go on to dig at Evergreen, a city-owned Black cemetery down the road, for the next five years or so.

“He dug the first gave out there at Evergreen Cemetery,” Byers said.

But it’s the stories of Happy Hill that Byers remembers most.

Namely, the mysterious disappearance and murder of 8-year-old Sandra Denise Marshall.

“There was a lady, she had a little girl and they stayed in Happy Hill. Later on, she got her uncle to stay with her and keep her little girl while she went out because she didn’t ever have a chance to go out. When she came back, she said her uncle told her somebody had took her daughter. It winds up, he’s the one who took the daughter and killed her and put her in the Happy Hill Cemetery,” Byers said. “I’ll never forget it.”

That was in 1962. A man named Marion Frank Crawford, 26, was charged and convicted of forcibly raping and murdering the little girl.

Knowing the stories and some of the people laid to rest here is what ties Byers to this property — not to mention he grew up here.

That’s what made him want to come back and volunteer for cleanup efforts

“We picked up paper around a couple of graves, cutdown bushes,” Byes said.

Byers ended up dedicating so much of his time that his volunteerism was recognized county and statewide.

He still wishes he could’ve done more to contribute to Happy Hill but knows it’s too big of a job for one person.

“I think if the city had a part in Happy Hill, Happy Hill wouldn’t look like it’s looking now.”

Wednesday at 6, we explain some of the many reasons why it’s been so hard to find living descendants to keep Happy Hill clean, the role the Department of Transportation played and what Happy Hill gardens was like before its revitalization era.

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