Man discovers graves of over 50 enslaved people on newly purchased Henderson property

Akilah Davis Image
Thursday, September 29, 2022
Man discovers 40-50 graves of enslaved people on his property
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"It was chilling. It was eight of my guys and myself and there wasn't a dry eye on the ground when we found that," Kenneth Spellman said.

HENDERSON, N.C. (WTVD) -- Following through on a promise to build his grandchildren a space to play, Kenneth Spellman discovered his newly purchased property held priceless stories of North Carolina's past.

When he first bought two acres of land on Satterwhite Point Road in Henderson, he had family in mind. He is a carpenter by trade who made a deal with his wife to buy the property.

"I wanted by buy an acre of land somewhere so that I could have a garden, chickens and a place for my grandchildren to grow," Spellman said. "My wife didn't want the house because women want a nice bathroom and nice kitchen and that stuff wasn't happening here. I said look I'll remodel the house in three weeks, which sounds impossible to most people."

Outside the home he built a gathering spot for family with a swing set, zipline, treehouse, walking trail and pond. Before long, neighbors in this rural community gathered there for family fun.

"People would ask if they can bring their children here for birthday parties or just to play," he said.

It even attracted the family of the man who sold Spellman the property. As it turns out, they also owned the plot next door and wanted to sell it.

"They found out who we were and called me to come over. They said 'hey, we've got a family cemetery on the property. I'd love for you to have the property and preserve our heritage," he said.

Spellman thought it was a good idea since he owns a construction company and needed to store his equipment. He bought the home sitting on 14 acres of land next door and the sheds that came with it. He didn't expect the owner to make his next statement.

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"He did tell me there was a slave graveyard or slave buried somewhere on the property. He was vague about it," said Spellman. "I didn't think a lot about the graveyard because I'm thinking one or two gravestones that we'll eventually find or not find. They described it as rocks turned up that were stuck in the ground."

Once Spellman bought the land, his crew got to work clearing trees, debris and poison ivy. They cut a trail which would connect the two properties, and that's when the unexpected happened.

"We actually found about 40 to 50 stones," he said. "It was chilling. It was eight of my guys and myself and there wasn't a dry eye on the ground when we found that. To know that people came here as kids and died."

For Spellman, this became personal and suddenly he had more questions than answers.

"Ken called and wanted to know if the historical society would have an interest in coming out and seeing the property," said Nancy Bobbitt, president of the Vance County Historical Society. "So many old cemeteries like that get bulldozed, but because Ken so faithfully looked and found that cemetery and preserved it, it will last another few generations."

Bobbitt and her colleagues paid Spellman a visit and brought documents from the Granville County Library. The census records, maps, photos and copies of newspaper articles from 1800's provided information about the Wortham family who owned this property for more than 100 years ago.

One article stated the Worthams moved to North Carolina in the 1700's. Census records from the 1830's show at that time the family owned 15 slaves. Another document has the Wortham's last name misspelled, which Bobbitt said was not uncommon at that time. It also revealed the family lived in Warren County, but 50 years after the survey was taken, a section of Warren County was given up to help form Vance County where the property sits today.

Another article from March of 1893 stated investigators were working a case after the owner George Wortham found a mulatto infant buried in a soapbox in his family cemetery.

On the property also sits the Wortham family cemetery. Each grave has a marker or headstone of some sort and then there's two stones just like those buried at the gravesite for the enslaved.

"Nobody knew 200 years later it would be discovered that the Black ancestors were here. The whites were there, but a mixed baby was over in the family cemetery," said Spellman.

According to Spellman, he was told by the Wortham's that the family once owned 135 acres of land and grew tobacco.

In part two of this segment, hear the details of what Spellman learned about the burial grounds for the enslaved and why archaeologists believe there's more people buried there than we know.