Struggle to find descendants of those buried at Happy Hill Cemetery in Winston-Salem

Piedmont Triad News

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (WGHP) — Earlier in our Forgotten Souls of Black Cemeteries series, we took you to Happy Hill in Winston-Salem.

As the coordinator works tirelessly to locate living family members of those resting there, we look at how the evolution of the Happy Hills Garden Neighborhood, volunteerism and a state highway all contributed to that.

When you look at Happy Hill, you will notice U.S. 52 is right up against the fencing of this cemetery.

Between the 1960s-70s when the highway was built, multiple graves were dug up to make room for the highway and moved to another nearby cemetery.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation tells FOX8 the agreement was between them and the property owner — not the families of those resting here.

“If we know that they are here, don’t move them. Don’t disrespect the area. I think that’s about as much as we can expect,” cemetery coordinator Maurice Pitts-Johnson said.

That’s just one of the many reasons why Johnson may never know some of the names of people who are buried here.

She’s been trying to keep it clean for decades but hasn’t found enough living family members to commit to the job.

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

“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,” she said.

So why are so many of the people that used to live in this adjacent neighborhood once known as Happy Hill Gardens so hard to find?

It’s partly because they were forced to move out during a revitalization era of the neighborhood.

“They were shooting in the apartments, and they were doing drugs everywhere. Happy Hill, nobody wanted to come to Happy Hill,” said Edith Jones, who grew up in the neighborhood.

Jones grew up there around the 1940s.

“I’m 80 years old and time has changed so much, and I’ve seen the change,” Jones said.

Back then, the neighborhood was filled with working class families

“My father worked at RJ Reynolds just about all his life. From the time he was here. My mother, she was a home keeper,” Jones said.

When Jones moved back to the area in the 90s, she saw the ongoing violence and drug use in her old neighborhood.

That’s when she said a governmental entity offered to knock down the buildings and create a new living environment for the families there.

“Everybody was like excited. Even the people that lived in the project because they were told that they were moving back,” Jones said.

That hope slowly vanished as revitalization took years. Jones said the promise made to bring those families back after the project was completed was never fulfilled.

Jones said the families who used to live here were moved to similar or worse environments than before.

“Some of those areas of drug use, I mean, it was up to the families that moved in those areas, but sometimes you have no choice and some of them didn’t have any choice but to go wherever they could get,” Jones said.

So many of them never came back. Some of whom had loved ones buried in Happy Hill.

To make matters worse, an effort to help clean the cemetery just made matters worse.

“We asked Happy Hill Housing Authority to help us clean the cemetery and they came by, not knowing when they were coming, and they knocked over a lot of the stones and pressed a lot of the stones in the ground so we are going by what we can finally see at this point,” Johnson said.

So now, it’s a guess when it comes to the exact number of souls resting Happy Hill.

“People need to know about their ancestors.”

Reporter: “Do you think that had it not been a Black cemetery that maybe more people would care?”

“Oh, I’m sure. I’m sure that’s true,” Johnson said.

Coming up next Monday at 6 p.m., we’ll take you to Kernersville where the Historical Society has taken over the grounds there.

The person who is believed to be buried in that cemetery is making history in Guilford County — and not for a widely known reason.

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