‘These are our ancestors’ – Durham native works to preserve history of slave cemeteries

Hidden History

CLAYTON, N.C. (WNCN) – One component of African American history many people are working to highlight is hidden burial grounds and slave cemeteries.

“I think when people find these old abandoned cemeteries, they really do think about the fact they were people that lived on this earth,” said Valjeanne Estes.

Estes, a Durham-native, has been researching her family tree for about a decade.

She felt heartbreak upon learning many of her relatives were slaves in Johnston County.

“It’s also thinking about where the family has come from that point, so it’s also uplifting as well. It’s so many emotions all at once,” said Estes.

Estes’ loved ones compiled a list of their family names, buried at the Flowers Plantation in Clayton.  

“It was just amazing to find all that information,” she said.

She visited a recently-discovered cemetery at the Tuscany Subdivision in Clayton, wanting to keep her research going.

“It’s really interesting work to piece together that history, but sometimes you just have to let it go because you think about how people lived and what their experiences of life were,” said Estes.

Associate Professor Adam Rosenblatt teaches at Duke University. He studies places across the country where people are trying to preserve, reclaim and tell stories of African American burial grounds along with other marginalized groups.

“More and more people are saying, ‘No, this is really important. These graves matter,'” said Rosenblatt.

He said it’s essential to shine light on hidden slave cemeteries and the stories within them — for both historical records and cultural reasons.

“There’s been a deep inequality in not just whose story gets told but whose debts are honored, and I really think this is one of the many debts we owe both to the living and to the dead,” said Rosenblatt.

Workers at the Flowers Plantation told CBS 17 there are more plans underway to restore the slave cemetery there.

Experts said more cemeteries are being discovered in part because of the development in our area.

“These are our ancestors and we do want to honor them and honor those places and those memories including the cemeteries,” said Estes. 

UPDATE: 

Although one tombstone was originally thought to have belonged to a slave in the Tuscany Subdivision cemetery, the Johnston County Heritage Center surveyed the cemetery and found otherwise.

A spokesperson said:

“Lucinda was wife of an African American farmer and landowner in the area in the early 20th century and not a slave. Her marker was pieced together and shows her to be Lucinda Sherrard Wiggs, born 1865, died 1920. She lived in Wayne County for most of her life, but her husband, Dock D. Wiggs, bought an 86-acre farm in Wilders Township (believed to be the land where the cemetery is located) in 1918, and she died there in 1920. The fact that Wiggs owned the property explains why his wife is buried there. Her death certificate says she died of stomach cancer and was buried at ‘home.’

It would have been most unusual for the remains of an enslaved person to be buried alongside those of the slave owners, although there are instances (such as the family cemetery across the road from former NC Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson near Benson). There are several slave cemeteries we have been able to locate, and they usually have few if any gravestones except maybe field stones placed at the head and foot of a grave. They are usually located a considerable distance away from final resting places of the owners.”

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