Archaeologist: Newly uncovered burial ground for enslaved people in Henderson could have more bodies

Akilah Davis Image
Friday, September 30, 2022
More bodies could be hidden at newly uncovered burial ground
Ken Spellman was left with several questions after uncovering a burial ground for enslaved people on his property.

HENDERSON, N.C. (WTVD) -- Ken Spellman was left with several questions after uncovering a burial ground for enslaved people on his property.

The discovery made him curious about the place he now called home on Satterwhite Point Road and the stories of those who lived there many years before him.

"They came in chains as five- and six-year-old kids working in the field until they were 70 and 80. They were buried right where I was standing," Spellman said.

The magnitude of what happened at his property in Vance County hundreds of years ago is not lost on him.

"They would talk about the struggle. They would talk about the injustices," he said.

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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.

UNC Chapel Hill archaeologist Dr. Anna Agbe-Davies said the old trees growing on uneven ground actually still hold on to secrets of the past.

"They were laid out in orderly rows. These are not stones accidently placed there. Some human put them there for a reason. Certainly marking the final resting place," Agbe-Davies said.

Although there are nearly 60 stones visible, she believes its possible many more people are buried there.

There are cabins also on the property that paint a picture of the past. Agbe-Davies explained that you can trace the history of a structure like this through the changes made to it over time.

"Some of the hardware like the nails are pretty typical of what you would see in the pre-emancipation era. Some of the repairs show people were continuing to use and maintain these buildings. That's why they're still standing," she said.

According to the archaeologist, the cabins could have been multipurpose units, like storage or even cabins for the enslaved. Inside the structure, artifacts fill the shelves including glass medicine bottles, clothes iron and tobacco receipts from the 1800's. Many of the items were found in the enslaved gravesite and Agbe-Davies said they were intentionally placed there as offerings.

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Relics of the past are littered throughout the 16 acres of land including inside the Wortham family home. The family owned the property for more than 100 years. The kitchen light was a candle light fixture that was wired and converted to an electrical unit.

Many days Spellman can't help but draw parallels between those who were enslaved here and his rocky past after serving 19 years in prison. While there, he created a program aimed at educating inmates and keeping them out of prison.

"The officers even noticed some of the men going to segregation on a week to week basis weren't going. They were sitting down studying to get GED's," he exclaimed.

Spellman believes this second chance at freedom was his purpose. Buying the land allowed him to preserve the legacy of the enslaved men, women and children who once called this place home.

"We're actually freeing the souls of those who were in bondage here," Spellman said.