Effort to protect slaves’ graves found at Johnston County housing development

Johnston County News

CLAYTON, N.C. (WNCN) – A Johnston County realtor noticed something new in her neighborhood, which she discovered is actually more than a century old.

Dawnetta Hooper contacted CBS 17 with the goal of making sure a small graveyard at the back of her development will stay where it is. The well-worn stones mark the spots where several slaves are buried.

“I was showing a client a house a little bit over the ridge, and she and her husband wanted to come back out to just look at the area and see where they could possibly build their house,” Hooper said.

“She calls me and says ‘there’s a graveyard back here.’ I said ‘no, I would have known if there was a graveyard here’. I sell quite a bit (of homes) in this neighborhood.”

Hooper went to the back of the Tuscany subdivision and at the end of a cul de sac on Copenhaver Drive, she saw a small wooded spot surrounded by the dirt of leveled lots. Yellow caution tape surrounded the uncleared patch Thursday morning, serving as the only indicator there is more to the area than trees and bushes.

It is hard to read the lettering on many of the carved stones due to years of weathering. Several of them have the name John Watson.

“There were headstones still up, but a lot of them were broken. There are about 30 graves and we could only find a little bit of names left,” she said.

“We did find one name that we were able to research, Lucinda, and it was indeed a slave that was owned by John Watson. You can imagine our delight and my fascination with it.”

Johnston County’s Slave Name index identifies Lucinda from an 1857 entry in the county’s slave name index, which lists Henry B. Watson and John W. B. Watson as owners. The patriarch of the family, John Watson, fought in the American Revolution.

Todd Johnson, the director of the Johnston County Heritage Center, said John and Elizabeth Ogden Watson’s son Josiah inherited the family plantation.

“He was one of the founders of the N.C. Railroad Company and benefactor of Ravenscroft School and Christ Episcopal Church in Raleigh. He owned thousands of acres in Johnston and Wake Counties, including the land where the cemetery is located, and hundreds of slaves, whose descendants are numerous in this area,” Johnson said.

“He and his wife and daughter are buried in the old Raleigh City Cemetery.”

Johnson said the Heritage Center has no record of the Copenhaver Drive site, but plans to document it soon. A county spokesperson said the Watson cemetery is in protected open space and will not be moved or disturbed.

That comes as a big relief to Hooper, who expressed concern about the possibility of construction on the burial grounds.

“We don’t want the grave site that we unearthed in Tuscany to be a hidden secret. We want it to draw people in, not scare people away,” she said. “We don’t want it to be hidden. They’ve been hidden long enough.”

Hooper, who is African-American, said this discovery gives her an opportunity to better educate her children about a dark part of America’s past. She said this is a physical piece of history that makes it easier to tell stories of slavery.

Her neighborhood is multi-cultural. She is proud of the diversity that now exists in a place where people were divided for many years, even in death.

She also is glad to know that Lucinda and others received recognition after their deaths.

“I was just fascinated to know that they gave their slaves a marked grave, so they wouldn’t be lost. They wrote their names,” Hooper said.

“It gives them an identity. It gives them a voice. When you put someone in an unmarked grave, you’re just saying they were nothing, they meant nothing, but by giving them a name, and giving others information on when they were born and when they died, it gives them a light.”

CBS 17 contacted the developer of the property adjacent to the graves, but did not receive a response.

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