If stones could talk

George Gibson adjusts his baseball cap and stares thoughtfully out at the riot of undergrowth that covers the once-beautiful South Asheville Cemetery. The rail-thin Gibson, now in his 70s, is a deacon at the St. John A. Baptist Church, and president of the South Asheville Cemetery Association; as a result, he has become one of the foremost authorities on the city’s neglected burial ground. He turns to me, and I ready my pad and pen to record whatever words of wisdom he might pass on. Instead, a smile breaks across his face.

“You’re wet, son,” he says.

Indeed I am. After clearing away brush for a few hours in the August sun with a crew of UNCA freshmen, my shirt is soaked, my hair is matted, and my bare legs are criss-crossed with itchy thorn scrapes. Still, the job must be done: Before the cemetery can be legislatively rescued, earning a proper seat in the National Register of Historic Places, it will have to be rescued physically. So here we are — 40 or so UNCA students and faculty, five members of the South Asheville Cemetery Restoration Committee (a newer group formed to assist the Cemetery Association), and me — wading into the brush with our work gloves on, and our sweaty bandanas stuffed in our back pockets.

The work is tougher than it sounds. The cemetery looks more like an unruly thicket — complete with briars, kudzu, poison ivy and at least one large, irritable turtle — than it does a burial ground. And by day’s end, we’ve barely made a dent in the needed work. We all know it’s worth it, though. Because the modest graveyard, which sits on a roughly 700-foot-by-150-foot lot behind St. John’s A. Baptist Church in Kenilworth, looms disproportionately large in the history of Asheville.

The saga of South Asheville Cemetery

For nearly 100 years — from the 1840s until it was closed in the mid-1940s — South Asheville Cemetery was the primary place of burial for African-Americans in the city. No one really knows how many people are buried there; estimates run from about 1,500 to as many as 5,000 graves. But few records were kept in those days, and the estimates we do have are based, in part, on indeterminate and sometimes-contradictory oral histories collected by Dee Williams and Lewis Armmond in 1989 for the N.C. Council On Humanities. Like most oral histories, these are rich in fascinating and revealing details (see accompanying boxes), but short on verifiable facts.

Buncombe County death records provide a partial listing of the cemetery’s interments, and other semiofficial sources — such as family Bibles, assorted photographs and artifacts, and an 1870 Asheville census — confirm that many more people were laid to rest there, too. But record-keeping was generally left up to the families, and many records were eventually lost or forgotten.

What we do know is that the McDowell family (of Smith-McDowell House fame) provided the land for the cemetery. And it was one of the family’s ex-slaves, George Avery, who took over the caretaking duties, maintaining the property for most of his life, until his death in the 1940s — after which, appropriately, he was buried there himself. Since then, however, cemetery maintenance has been sporadic at best, and the property has more or less returned to the wild.

There were other caretakers after Avery, but his story is inextricably woven into the wealth of history that rests beneath the cemetery’s tangled brush. Born into slavery sometime in the mid-1800s, Avery was owned by William McDowell, husband of Sarah Lucinda Smith — whose father, James, built the beautiful Smith-McDowell House, now a museum on the A-B Tech campus. McDowell became a partner in his father-in-law’s business, and eventually bought the house and acreage in an auction, three years after Smith’s death. At one point, McDowell owned 44 slaves, making him one of the largest slaveholders in western N.C.

Though few people in the area owned slaves, there was no real anti-slavery movement here, either; of Buncombe’s 12,000 residents around that time, about 2,000 were slaves. But in 1859, when tensions between the South and the North had heated up, McDowell helped organize a local militia unit, the Buncombe Riflemen. Shortly after the fall of Fort Sumter, the Riflemen became the first WNC unit to volunteer for the Confederacy. But before McDowell could get involved in any conflict, he was forced to leave the service, having contracted chronic dysentery.

“A few years later, when it became obvious that the Confederacy was losing the war,” explains Asheville resident Lawyer Kimbrough of the Arrows Project, a community-development organization that has extensively researched Avery’s story, “Smith advised several of his slaves, including George Avery, to hike over to Tennessee and join the Union Army. This was against Smith’s own loyalties, you see, but he knew this would allow Avery not only to make a living, but to keep a pension afterwards.”

When the war ended a few months later, Avery returned to Buncombe County to take over as caretaker of the South Asheville Colored Cemetery. By then, McDowell had lost most of his money due to the financial havoc wreaked by the war; eventually, he was forced to sell his house and estate. But Avery, now a free man like McDowell, stayed on at the South Asheville Cemetery — digging graves, tending the grounds, and collecting the $1 fee that families paid to have their loved ones buried there — until his death, at age 96, in 1944.

Blacks could be buried in the predominantly white, city-owned Riverside Cemetery, but their graves would be placed “down on the back lot, near the road,” as one Council On Humanities interviewee described it — so South Asheville Cemetery remained the primary place for Asheville’s African-American residents to be interred. But most of the deceased were poor, and few headstones were ever erected; often a stone or a planted tree was the only marker. Bodies were buried in makeshift coffins, pine boxes and even wicker baskets. To make matters worse, in the process of digging new graves, burial crews would sometimes accidentally exhume someone else.

“When that happened, there wouldn’t be time to start over,” Gibson told the Asheville Citizen-Times in 1985, “so [they] would move the first remains over and place the new coffin next to it.”

As Avery grew older, the cemetery slipped into obscurity once again. The McDowell family still owned most of the land, but a small portion — which they had given to Avery — was bequeathed by him to the trustees of the Silver Leaf Lodge of Odd Fellows of South Asheville. A few years later, that parcel was shared with the trustees of two other local lodges. Eventually, the city assumed ownership of that part of the land. But the primary responsibility for cemetery upkeep apparently fell to family members, or the congregations of the two churches affiliated with it — St. John A. Baptist and St. Mark AME. Gradually, the cemetery fell into neglect and was slowly reclaimed by Mother Nature. For the most part, it has remained that way — overgrown, and largely forgotten — ever since.

The road ahead

Looking at the cemetery now, with its lush, subtropical foliage, and the vines twining crazily among the trees, it’s hard to believe that thousands of people are buried there.

Even sifting through the news articles about the cemetery, and the government and academic documents, is somewhat depressing. In the early 1980s, a group of concerned community residents formed the South Asheville Cemetery Association, in an attempt to rescue the aged graveyard. The group did manage to acquire both the McDowells’ and the city’s portions of the land; for the rest, however, nothing much has really changed.

Since then, a host of players have come and gone, leaving George Gibson as the central figure. It’s tough, today, to read his interviews from 10 or 15 years ago and not be saddened by how hard he has worked, how long he has labored at this task, and how little has actually gotten done. The cemetery has been cleaned before, Gibson tells me in his soft-spoken voice — and then forgotten again. The challenge now — and it’s a considerable one — is not only to get it cleared and restored, but to keep it that way.

“The clearing process alone will probably take months; the growth is pretty thick back there,” says David Moore, who is staff archaeologist for the N.C. Division of Archives and History, and a member of the Cemetery Restoration Committee.

Various volunteer groups — including the YMCA Youth Outreach Program, Warren Wilson College and certain sororities and fraternities around town — have already expressed interest in helping out, Moore explains. But he’s quick to add that still more help is needed. This fall, after frost kills some of the vegetation, the committee plans to tackle the cemetery jungle in earnest. But that will require both volunteer labor and the loan or donation of equipment, such as chain saws, weed-eaters, sling blades, hand clippers and even pickup trucks.

Once the clearing is done, though, the real work will begin — the step-by-step acceptance of a communal obligation that should have been assumed 50 years ago. First, the property will be surveyed to assess the actual size of the lot. Then, an archaeological investigation must be done to locate the graves.

There is also the very sticky legal question of what to do if graves are found to have been placed upon adjoining, private property.

“If any burial sites are found to be on any adjacent property, we’ll have to negotiate with the property owners,” said Restoration Committee member David Quinn. “We’re hoping to make it mutually beneficial, so everyone is happy,” he noted.

After the graves have been identified as accurately as possible, soil will be brought in where sinking has occurred. And, finally, a fence will need to be erected around the property.

One obvious way to achieve all this would be to have the South Asheville Cemetery Association granted tax-exempt, nonprofit status, so that any donations to the project would be tax-deductible. This would help the association get funding, both from foundations and private donors, to cover the associated costs and establish a perpetual-care fund.

“We’re exploring various sources for financial support,” says Restoration Committee Co-chair Eula Shaw. “We’re going to try to set up some continuous historic research and explore what the city and the state can do.”

Other groups have already gone that route, however — notably the Arrows Project, spearheaded by Asheville resident Lawyer Kimbrough. This community-development project, which is not affiliated with the South Asheville Cemetery Association, has contacted several local politicians and organizations, including Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick, U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor and state Rep. Wilma Sherrill. All have expressed a polite but as-yet-inconclusive interest in the project, he said.

And so the question must be asked: George Gibson and others in the South Asheville Cemetery Association have been toiling to preserve this once-hallowed piece of ground for nearly 20 years; why hasn’t any lasting progress been made? And what makes the current group think they’ll succeed, when others didn’t?

“First of all, there’s never been a formalized support group until now,” says Moore. “This has never been a managed cemetery. Former committees have never had a real plan for what to do with the money they raised. [The present committee] is larger and more organized, and has more specific goals.”

Quinn agrees. “We feel we have a comprehensive overview of what needs to happen. The real key is having the width, depth and breadth of community involvement, and I think we’ve gone a long way toward getting that.”

Happily, it seems they may be right. While Gibson remains grateful for the help the cemetery has received in the past, he also knows that the present Restoration Committee — Shaw, Moore, Quinn, Olivia Metz (Gibson’s daughter) and Maggie O’Connor (of the city’s Historic Resources Commission) — is a savvy, motivated bunch who are not afraid to get their hands dirty, physically or legislatively. “We’ve got a good team now,” Gibson affirms. “That’s not to say the work will be easy, but [the cemetery’s future] is looking better than ever.”

But the key to that process, Gibson acknowledges, is not so much funding as it is the committed involvement of the Asheville community.

Kimbrough agrees. “It’s not about money,” he says — “It’s about community. This cemetery has to go from being a forgotten old black graveyard to an historic cemetery — and that’s not money, that’s perception.”

Shaw, however, wants it to be known that if anyone is interested in making a financial donation, the group would be more than happy to accept it.

But that’s another challenge. For now, as Gibson and I look out at the students clearing the cemetery, I feel at once elated and regretful: elated that something important is being done here, and regretful that it’s taken so long. No doubt Gibson is feeling it, too. A man of few words, he communicates more by his presence, his tone of voice, than by reciting reams of information. But when I ask him why we should care about this little piece of Kenilworth, why so many people are out here today working hard for just a small, temporary victory over the land, Gibson remains quiet.

Then he says, “Because every black family in this area has somebody buried out there.”

For more information about the South Asheville Cemetery, contact Eula Shaw at 684-3119, or George Gibson at 254-4654.

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