THE RAVAGES OF TIME
By: LAURA PECK Of The Record Staff
Source: The Daily Record
(Permission to post this article was obtained from Managing Editor, Lisa Farmer)
The tombstone reads "Gone But Not Forgotten," though it seems he has been forgotten by most.
This epitaph marks the headstone of John Henry Elliott's grave. He passed away a few days into 1975.
The plastic flowers around his grave attest to the fact someone has visited his grave, even though
they may have a hard time getting to it.
Mr. Elliott rests in the Wilkins Cemetery, a large plot of overgrown land at the end of North Wilson Avenue.
This cemetery does not have a neatly clipped lawn, wrought iron gates, paved pathways and rows of orderly
headstones. Instead, it resembles a forest with scattered tombstones, large trees growing through the
sunken plots where, one hopes, the bodies that were once in them have been moved.
It is dangerous terrain, between the sunken graves and overgrown weeds and pricker bushes. What appears
to be an above-ground tomb is starting to crumble. Newer graves, one from as recently as 1999, are near
the road. There is some trash by the road, including a discarded tire. A white enamel pot is wedged in
a large pile of sticks and branches.
The Wilkins Cemetery was once a popular graveyard with the African-American population in Dunn. The
names of those buried there are familiar names: McBride, Faison, McAllister, NcNair, Burnett, Lockamy
and Chance. The graveyard has historical significance. Henry McAllister, a cook in World War I, who,
according to his tombstone died in 1947, is there. So is William Gainey who died at 2 days old.
Floretta and Jame B. McNair, who died in the 1950s, have matching concrete tombstones. It appears
whoever made their matching stones simply wrote their message in wet concrete themselves. Some
still visible headstones date back as far as 1927.
However, these treasures are hard to get to and there is no telling what is back in the areas of the
L-shaped plot that are no longer accessible. George Franklin Blalock, a former mayor of Dunn and
councilman, is mounting his own protest against the shoddy condition of the cemetery. His nanny
was buried in the cemetery. "She came to my family when I was 6 months of age and I loved her," he said.
Mr. Blalock wants to move his former nanny, Susie McBryde, to another cemetery and has permission from
one of her relatives to do so. However, first he must find her."My nanny who worked for my family for
35 years is buried there ... We can't even find the body for the debris," Mr. Blalock said.
The cemetery is privately owned but, Mr. Blalock said, the city has no qualms over mowing and cleaning
up other privately owned lots when the owner will not. The city cleaned one of Mr. Blalock's lots, but
he refuses to pay the fee until something is done about the cemetery. "I told them last year I won't
pay for them cutting weeds until they cleaned up the cemetery ... They won't do it," he said.
Mr. Blalock said he had written several letters to former city manager Carl Dean, but never
received a answer. "It's nothing but weeds and trees and bushes," said Mary Lemuel Blalock,
Mr. Blalock's daughter, who joins her father in his attempts to have the cemetery cleaned.
"You'd have to take a machete."
Family Near, But Far Away
Christopher Columbus Bethea, who lives two doors down from Wilkins Cemetery, said his mother
is buried in the cemetery. Her name was Annie Anderson and she passed away in 1963. Mr. Bethea
has not visited the grave in years. "I can find where my mom's at, but I have to take my time,"
He remembers a time, years ago, when people could cut through the "field" as it was called, and
have a shortcut from Granville Street to North Wilson Avenue. Not so anymore. Mary Sue Bethea, who
lives at the other end of the block, four houses down from the cemetery, also has family there. As a
young girl she would help her aunt when she went to clean off her brother's grave. Fifty years ago,
when she came to Dunn, the cemetery was not in bad shape. "It was clean then, " Ms. Bethea said. "It
was clean all over."
Although her uncle, grandmother, grandfather and aunt are buried back there, Ms. Bethea said she has
her reservations about hunting out their graves. "I would like to see it cleaned up," she said. "I'd
be scared to go back up in there."
Donny Olds, a part-time teacher at Triton High School, once lived next door to the Wilkins Cemetery.
He did not know a lot about the cemetery, but said it was not always so overgrown. "When I moved there
(in 1968) it was a clean field," he said. However, somewhere around the '80s people stopped burying
their loved ones there as much as they used to and the land became overgrown.
Who Will Clean It?
The Wilkins Cemetery is owned by Lilly Toon Hunter of Durham. The property is valued at $13,000, and
according to the city tax collector's office, her taxes are up-to-date. Ms. Hunter said she inherited
the property from her father, also buried on the plot. She said she has relatives in Dunn who were
supposed to keep it up, and she will contact them. She is aware of the state of the cemetery. "It's
not that I'm not interested," she said.
Ms. Hunter said it is difficult for her to care for the property because she lives in Durham and at
one point tried to sell it. Daisy Jacobs, Ms. Hunter's aunt who lives in Dunn, said to her knowledge,
the people who bought the plots are responsible for keeping them up. Mrs. Jacobs said all requests for
help from the city have been refused. "The city doesn't help and we still pay city taxes,"
Mrs. Jacobs said.
"I've asked the city for help," she said. Mrs. Jacobs said she has personally cleaned parts of the
cemetery, but she cannot do it alone. She said her family would be willing to pay a fee to have the
cemetery cleaned, as long as it is not too much.
Through The Cracks
State statutes are vague when they deal with abandoned private cemeteries. They do not even define
what "private" or "abandoned" means, said Debbi Blake from the North Carolina
Department of Cultural
Resources, Division of Archives and History, Archives and Records Section. They do say it is against
the law to "throw, place or put any refuse or trash in or on any cemetery."
The statute also prohibits the "defacing or desecrating" of grave sites. But what can the law do when
it is time defacing the tombstones and nature desecrating the graves?
John Hairr, who is on the Cemetery Committee for Harnett County, said the committee can occasionally
take action on abandoned cemeteries. He said the county defines "abandoned" as not being able to find
any living relatives of people buried there. The Daily Record found living relatives on the same block.
Whether or not Wilkins Cemetery is abandoned doesn't matter, since Mr. Hairr said the committee only has
jurisdiction outside municipal limits.
Harnett County Health Director Wayne Raynor said his office would look into whether the cemetery might
be considered a health hazard. He said cemeteries can be a public health hazard if fresh graves are
disturbed, which can happen during natural disasters like the floods that followed Hurricane Floyd.
Mr. Raynor said two years or newer would be a fresh grave, making it unlikely the decades-old graves
would be categorized as a risk.
Interim City Manager Ronnie Autry said the fate of Wilkins Cemetery has been a topic at city council
meetings for years. "That's been discussed 20 years," Mr. Autry said. He said there have been grassroots
efforts in the past to clean up the cemetery. There's been "discussion back and forth for years and no
headway's ever been taken."
Mr. Autry said because of the condition of the area and the fact people are buried there, the lot would
have to be cleared by hand a tedious, time consuming job.
Mr. Autry said it would take a community movement to have the city allocate funds and pitch in."If
there was a group of family members who really got together, I'm sure the city would support it with
all we have," he said.
For now, Wilkins Cemetery continues to fall through the bureaucratic cracks as the trees reclaim the
land and history is slowly lost to the effects of time and neglect.
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