Mecklenburg County has at least 270 known cemetery sites. Some are obvious, located along a main road or next to a church. But other burial grounds have become obscured by the passage of time, neglect, or urban sprawl. WFAE's Mark Rumsey reports on a few local cemeteries that are "hidden in plain sight."
It's lunch hour at the Grand Promenade Village, a busy retail complex in the University City area. Travis Ford and a companion walk out of Buffalo Wild Wings with lunch in hand. When a reporter points out a fenced-off area adjacent to the restaurant, Ford's surprise is evident and he asks, "Is this a cemetery?" His companion confirms that it is, and Ford says "I'll tell you what, I've been in this area for years and I never even knew this was a cemetery beside it!"
The cemetery dates back to the 1930s, and an era when Mecklenburg County ran a home for indigent residents. The facility was located near the present site of University Hospital. When residents died, many were buried nearby in what was often referred to as the "poor house" cemetery. When Charlotte developer, the Ghazi Company built the shopping center in the early 2000s, the cemetery was preserved. But over the years, upkeep of the burial grounds has been sporadic. Today, Mecklenburg County owns the property.
On a recent visit, the ground was covered with leaves and weeds, punctuated by tree stumps. Some of the headstones were leaning or completely toppled over. Chris Hunter, a manager with the County's Park and Rec Department, scanned the site and acknowledged, "It's not a very well kept property, frankly. We're trying to change that - we're gonna change that." Hunter continued, "It's just one of those things that's seemingly fallen through the cracks over the years. It's certainly not Arlington National Cemetery, let's put it that way."
Gravestones do give names and dates for the 300-plus former county home residents who are buried in the cemetery. But, there's no sign to designate the site or explain its history. Jane Johnson, who researches local history and genealogy for the Public Library of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, thinks that should change.
"We have our county buildings labeled and other pieces of property," Johnson says. "I think it's a shame that we have not identified this particular place that's the resting place for so many people." The poor house cemetery site is just one of many places around Charlotte where you might walk or drive very close to an old burial ground, and not even know it.
In the SouthPark area, a 19th-century cemetery has long been obscured in a wooded patch, surrounded by stores and condos near busy traffic along Sharon and Colony Roads. The cemetery holds at least 78 graves and hearkens back to the post Civil War era, when newly-freed slaves were among the worshippers in Charlotte's now extinct St. Lloyd Presbyterian Church.
Decades of neglect for the cemetery appear to be ending. Volunteers led by a local Eagle Scout candidate started cleaning up the property this summer. And the property owner plans to create a public space on the cemetery site this fall, including a stone border, pathway, and signs.
Mecklenburg County's largest-known slave cemetery is now tucked away, right next to the tennis court, in the Thornberry apartment complex off Mallard Creek Church Road. The Alexander Plantation Slave Cemetery was used between 1824 and 1865. Apartment resident Karen McLean said she wasn't told anything about it when she moved in.
"I think they wanted to keep it a little under wraps," McLean speculated. "A lot of people have weird stigmas about cemeteries."
McLean eventually noticed a small sign designating the historic cemetery. Now, she's intrigued by it and would like to know more about the site. "I wish you could walk through it," says Mclean. "I understand why they do have it gated off, just because it would probably get vandalized."
Charlotte's old and often overlooked cemeteries offer a window into the region's people and times gone by. "I feel like it's important for the legacy of Mecklenburg County, as well as individuals, to know about the lives these people led and where they ended up," says researcher Jane Johnson. An online listing of Mecklenburg County's known cemetery sites can be found at: http://www.cmstory.org/people/default.asp