City destroys historically Black cemetery in Wilson and builds over it: 'Where are the headstones?'

Akilah Davis Image
Monday, March 11, 2024
City of Wilson destroys historically Black cemetery
The fight to find out what happened to hundreds of graves at Vick Cemetery in Wilson continues, which includes finding out where the headstones are.

WILSON, N.C. (WTVD) -- The fight to find out what happened to hundreds of graves at Vick Cemetery continues for Lisa Henderson.

It is a historically Black cemetery that was first established in 1913. By the 1950s, records state that the Wilson County Health Department condemned the land as being unfit for human burial.

There were efforts by the city to clear and maintain the ground, but somehow grave markers were removed in the process.

Henderson walked the grounds with ABC11 showing what appeared to be a vault cover with grass growing over it.

"Let me show you the last remaining physical evidence for a grave in this cemetery," she said.

Davis: "I can't help, but notice how uneven the ground is."

Henderson: "That's because you're walking over graves."

She uncovered documents chronicling the story behind this land. ABC11 tried reaching current Wilson Mayor Pro-Tem James Johnson because he was on council when the decision was made to clear the cemetery. Instead of an interview, Johnson sent documents.

The City of Wilson had allowed the cemetery to fall into disrepair with little or no maintenance for 20 years. By 1994, the city council voted to move forward with clearing debris, removing grave markers and leveling its surface for $200,000.

The decision was made to install a central monument as opposed to putting the grave markers back. The city manager at that time stated, according to documents, that it would be easier to maintain.

A newspaper article from 1996 states that the tombstones had been collected for storage by the city, but when ABC11 asked where they were being stored, we received no answer.

"When we're talking about the dead, who can speak for them," questioned Henderson. "Where are the headstones?"

She started a blog called the Lane Street Project that details her efforts to get answers from the city.

After years of pressure from Henderson, Wilson agreed to pay $29,000 to conduct a radar survey and capture images below the ground. The study was conducted in June, but the city didn't release the report until she filed a public records request.

The results were staggering.

"I was devastated. They detected 4,224 graves here," she said.

That means thousands of African Americans who were buried here between 1913 and 1950 lay under the grassy field.

For Henderson, this mission has been personal. Her uncle is buried there. Both she and another Wilson native, Levolyre Pitt, 92, are among the many casualties of the city of Wilson's decision. They now have to pay their respects in front of a monument.

Pitt's grandparents were buried there.

"It would be nice to know you could go out there and say hey, they lie here or they lie there," she said. "Who knows what happened to the gravestones, but you know there's probably people in Wilson that do."

Vick Cemetery: Radar survey captures images below the ground which appears to show more than 4,000 graves.

Davis: "Did grandma and grandpa deserve better than a monument?"

Pitt: "Well, yeah. They deserved better than a monument."

Vick Cemetery