When Conda Painter was riding her bike down West Asheville’s Nevada Avenue in 1979, a man stopped to ask her if she knew of an old cemetery that was rumored to be “somewhere between the houses.” He was looking for the grave of his great-grandmother. She had heard rumors about gravesites through chatter among her older neighbors, but there was no proof.
She’s sought the answer to that question ever since.
On June 16, Painter — a third-generation Ashevillaen who still lives in her family’s house — walked to the corner of Haywood Road and Virginia Avenue to watch work on the construction of a proposed residential and retail building underway since 2021. Excavation had stopped once before on reports that Wilson’s Chapel AME Church cemetery was there, but nothing had been found. But a few minutes after Painter arrived, two graves were discovered.
There isn’t much documentation on the church, but supposedly when the church moved to a new site on Burton Street in 1925, those buried in its cemetery were relocated as well. The gravesites, which are visible from Haywood Road, will be protected from the ongoing development by a retaining wall.
Painter says she feels a sense of satisfaction that the cemetery has been found. After she was stopped by the man in 1979, she started asking her neighbors about the cemetery. Today, she is the curator of the West Asheville History Museum at 727 Haywood Road, which she opened four years ago, partially because of her years of research on Wilson’s Chapel. Painter now hopes to raise funds via a GoFundMe campaign to build a monument that will honor the church and those interred on its former grounds.
“It’s really strange,” she tells Xpress during a visit on the screened-in porch of her house, which borders the site. “It sounds crazy, but it’s almost like there’s some kind of connection, like these people wanted me to make them known.”
This interview has been condensed for length and edited for clarity.
Xpress: What led you to wanting to honor the folks you’ve heard about your whole life?
This has been something I’ve thought about throughout my life. It’s crazy how things just kind of fell into place, like a domino effect, you know — one thing after another. When I was on my bicycle in the street [that day], I didn’t get to have the conversation I would’ve wanted. So, I started asking questions around my neighborhood.
This neighborhood mainly consisted of people in their 80s and 90s, and I used to go over and sit on their porches. They’d invite me over for ice cream, and they would tell stories. They’d say, “Well, we think there used to be a church or cemetery somewhere in this neighborhood,” but they didn’t know exactly where it was. It was just like rumors, and you couldn’t really figure out where it was. Until one day, a lady a street over asked me to come and look at her scrapbook. And she showed me a picture and said, “I believe this is a picture of your street.” And it was my street, and these two people are standing in the driveway, and I studied the slant of the street, and I could tell about where the chapel was, which is in the picture. I said, “Yep, that’s it. That’s Wilson’s Chapel.” And that is the only known photograph. I just felt like this was really proof.
That was the start of it all. Later on, we shared a garden with the neighbors connected to the back of our property, where there’s a parking lot now. But it used to be a field I would walk through as a kid. And I always had this peaceful feeling — almost like you’re walking through a cemetery. It sounds crazy, but that’s what it felt like.
One day the neighbor who had the house in the field found a casket handle and a set of teeth in the garden. And we thought, “Wow, maybe there was something there.” Well, my neighbor put the teeth up in a tree, and a crow came along and ran off with them.
And there’s still no real proof at this point, just bits and pieces and stories. When my dad passed away, I felt like I needed to carry on with the research.
What was it like on the day the gravesites were discovered?
I had gotten permission and was going back and forth to the site to watch. They (the N.C. Office of State Archaeology) had been doing fieldwork for weeks and were about ready to wrap up. When I went up there on June 16, I don’t know what it was … but I felt like I needed to hurry and get up there. I don’t know how, but I had the feeling that this was going to be the day. It was really strange.
I was standing on the sidewalk watching them do their work and had been up for 10 minutes when I realized that they had found something. It was exciting to be standing there and actually see proof come to life after all these years. It was actually mind-blowing.
I wish those people that had come looking all those years ago could finally have an answer. But they’re probably long gone.
Looking back on how everything just kind of played out, I wondered, “Who would’ve thought that this would happen in 2023?” And I wish my dad was alive to be able to see this because, he kept saying, “One of these days, I think something’s going to come up where this is going to be proven.”
Why is the memorial important to you?
The monument is so important to me because I thought about it while growing up. I think my dad would feel the same way. I feel like I’m supposed to do it and I really can’t explain why. It’s just that feeling. It’s been such a big part of my life.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about this journey?
During the fieldwork, my mom got up in her attic, and she pulled out a box of old papers. And this is crazy, but when I was in the 10th grade, I did a paper on Wilson’s Chapel. And she found these old papers, as well as a little journal that I had doodled in.
And in that journal, I put, “Well, I’m looking forward to the day that these people are found and are discovered.”
It almost brought tears to my eyes.
Tasha Benyshek, senior archaeologist with cultural resources management firm TRC, told Asheville Watchdog, “Conda Painter is to be credited completely for making sure the story of the Wilson Chapel cemetery was not forgotten.” How does hearing that make you feel?
I have to pinch myself to see if this is all real. We’ve actually arrived to where people will now know it actually existed. And that’s really important to me, that these people got known, you know. It was completely lost. That’s what’s so amazing about the story. And it’s good that the story’s being told. And I’m glad that the discovery happened in my lifetime. I feel like if it hadn’t, maybe the building and all the changes would’ve just kept going and nobody would’ve ever known.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated Aug. 7 to correct the address of the West Asheville History Museum.