Old gravestones are more than just memorials for the dead. They’re living history – a collective written account, of sorts, of particular times and places, of the people living within them and the traditions they carried.
It’s a perspective—best put forth by Ruth Little in her book on the history of NC cemeteries—shared by George Edwards, executive director of the Historic Wilmington Foundation.
Considering the unique link to the past provided by such tucked away, unassuming plots, many of which are long forgotten and overgrown, Edwards and his fellow preservationists believe they deserve special attention to assure their stories don’t go untold.
Historic Wilmington Foundation’s (HWF’s) annual Most Threatened Places list, released earlier this week, takes a thematic approach to cemeteries in the tri-county region that, Edwards said, have been endangered by “neglect, vandalism and development,” as well as by well-meaning caretakers who have improperly cleaned the sometimes centuries-old markers.
The general grouping is among 11 that made this year’s roundup of spots in the Cape Fear area that, without intervention, could be lost to the damage time and inattention bring.
Edwards, along with member of HWF’s executive committee, unveiled the 2016 list Tuesday at one such endangered burial site, the Flemington-Oak Grove Cemetery, which was also listed as threatened last year.
The county-owned graveyard, located on Sampson Street, a dead-end dirt road just off U.S. 421, contains tombstones moved from Oak Grove Cemetery in the early 1960s to make way for an extension of 16th and 17th streets. Some questions have been raised since over whether the remains of bodies originally buried in Oak Grove were ever moved to Flemington.
Noting that New Hanover County officials have “forcefully” focused on locating and protecting cemeteries, Edwards said work is still needed to ensure their survival. The county has embarked on an initiative to document cemeteries and create a model for groups who could “adopt” them, and appointed staff in charge of looking after the sites. Brunswick and Pender counties have made similar efforts, Edwards said.
“Nevertheless, too many challenges remain for these sites held sacred by previous generations,” he noted. Compiled each year with the help of residents’ feedback, the list is released in May as part of National Preservation Month.
Created in 2006, the Most Threatened Historic Places initiative highlights a variety of sites that “but for the intervention…might be lost through neglect or outright public or private actions that lead to demolition,” Edwards said. While alone it’s not enough to save those sites, he added, the annual list often gets the ball rolling by raising awareness of their cultural importance and current state.
HWF added a traveling exhibit component four years with the goal of further putting a public focus on old homes and buildings, rural churches and cemeteries. This year’s exhibit will be unveiled in late July and will appear in local and regional public libraries and other frequented spots like Thalian Hall.
In addition to graveyards, HWF has once again highlighted wooden windows, which Edwards said are often taken out during a repair or renovation and replaced with ill-fitting modern glazing.
“In most cases, wood windows can be repaired and upgraded in an environmentally friendly manner while retaining historic integrity,” he noted. “Well-maintained wood windows will typically outperform new replacement windows.”
Another recurring group listing is the Rosenwald Schools, which are particularly prevalent in Pender County. Rosenwald was the name given to educational institutions for black students in the early 20th century.
Downtown Wilmington’s quaint cobblestone roadways also secured a “watch” spot on the list for the second time this year. The “watch” distinction, also given to Southport’s City Hall, is a designation HWF gives to sites that, while not in immediate danger, could eventually become threatened if interventions aren’t put in place now.
The streets—often paved with materials from shipping vessels of a bygone era—have been damaged and go without repairs. When they are fixed, Edwards said, the solution is often to just cover them in concrete. The City of Wilmington is currently surveying the streets and seeking public input on a plan to manage and preserve the brick roads.
“We applaud the city’s initiative and urge them to take a long range view on the issue,” Edwards said.
Other list-makers are the rifle range at Fort Caswell in Caswell Beach, a 1918 structure abandoned by the US Army after WWll, as well as the Fowler House on Front Street–the former Taste of Country restaurant whose planned rehabilitation has been delayed several years due to a sale that fell through and changes in ownership. And two Russian Orthodox churches, while sound in structure, are considered threatened by a massive drop in membership over the years in a community that historically held a large number of Russian immigrants.
Since the inaugural list, HWF has listed 63 homes, buildings, churches and other sites in batches of approximately 10 each year.
Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.