This past year I’ve been sharing an incredible experience with conscious community leaders from Rocky Mount, North Carolina; the restoration of the historic Unity Cemetery. My perpetual quest for history and insight about my people lead me to Rocky Mount. I am still learning and building on the information and inspiration I have gained.
Unity Cemetery, an 18 acre African American cemetery was founded in the 1920s. Among the thousands calling Unity their final resting place are many Black change makers, including the first African American North Carolina state representative Dred Wimberly and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated founder Anna Easter Brown. Today the cemetery is largely in ruins. Graves have sunk in, headstones tumbled, and some are completely lost to time and the elements erasing history. I have come to understand that many Black cemeteries throughout the American south have suffered a similar fate.
I can’t help but wonder …. how could this happen when the last burial was in 2019? What can we learn from those resting at Unity? Most importantly, why is the Black cemetery in this condition when Pineview Cemetery three minutes away whom did not permit the burial of Black people so meticulously maintained?
I took my questions to the community leaders regularly on site Samuel, Tarrick, Steve, and Tracey. Once a month they host a clean up that has dwindled in numbers since my first visit but grown in meaningfulness. They have told their stories time and time again mentioning their personal connections to the cemetery and the Rocky Mount area in their own respective ways. Two Black and two white they are the embodiment of Unity, in my opinion. They continue to collaborate on this mission that the privileged might find meaningless but those of us searching for our place and an understanding of our history are forever grateful.
I saw Tarrick and Samuel on WRAL news in February encouraging people to come help clean up. The very same weekend I made my first trip to Unity in Rocky Mount, NC. It was a cold day in February but you would never know that by the size of the crowd at the clean up.
All walks of life different ages, races, and beliefs found value in being present for the first clean up. The word unity was the correct term because although people have differing opinions on how things should more forward they have united to keep the ball rolling. Some families decided to clean up their own plots, others have made trips to assess what would be their next best move to honor their ancestry. None of which would be happening without the attention being brought to Unity cemetery by the four mentioned above and their trusted advisors.
As an outsider looking in, happy to learn, and ecstatic to grow. Here are a few things I’d like to share.
The Black Cemetery
There are two schools of thought when it comes to burials in the African American community. Largely deprived of resources many graves in the south were marked with rocks, wooden crosses, and hand engraved stones. The thinking here was that the ancestors are going back to the earth from which we all came. There was no artificial elaborate landscape created in most cases.
The second understanding revolves around the more Eurocentric belief that a cemetery is a place of remembrance for the living to return to. More like a park for the dead, if you will. This school of thought mandates the allocation of resources, the ability to keep records, and other details that were not afforded to Blacks in the post civil war south.
My thoughts are split between the two schools. As we search for information we are challenged by the lack of structure, by the overgrowth, and by the lack of resources needed to really dig in and clean up. On the other hand the peace and quiet of Unity Cemetery is remarkable. The shade of the trees, the streams that have forged their ways through the families, even in its overgrown state there is a sense of peace and rest.
Dred Wimberly (1849 – 1937)
Dred Wimberly was a memorable force in North Carolina’s postbellum period. Born an enslaved field hand near Tarboro, North Carolina on the Walnut Plantation, Wimberly made the choice to remain on the plantation when liberation arrived in 1865. This decision was not uncommon. Stepping out into an unfamiliar and dangerous post-civil war America was just as risky as staying in place on a plantation. Although, much of my reading has led me to believe Dred had a unique relationship with his plantation owner Kemp Plummer Battle, there is still more research to be done. Battle, an early University of North Carolina president valued education, hard work, and opportunity. Wimberly would prove to value the same for his people.
A carpenter by trade Wimberly was called upon by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1879 to run for an open seat. NCpedia.com cites Dred Wimberly’s response as the following, “I got into it when I wasn’t looking . . . I hesitated at first and asked them to look around a lot more. They nominated me anyhow and I was elected.” In 1889, Wimberly won a state senate seat. He was an active member who participated in many spirited debates and votes. One of the votes that resonated with Wimberly’s interest in education was in 1887, Wimberly voted to create North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts. This institution grew into North Carolina State University.
Dred Wimberly continued his path in governance. He even went to Washington, DC becoming a custodian in the United States House of Representatives. Buried in 1937 in Unity Cemetery, Wimberly’s home and historical marker still stand across the street from Pineview Cemetery. The cemetery he was not permitted to be buried in due to the color of his skin.
My journey with Unity Cemetery is far from over. I will continue to research and share stories, history, and insight from this powerful and meaningful unifying force.