For years, the only hints to Dunn’s forgotten past were a few gravestones showing through the woods, half-hidden behind sticker bushes and sweetgum trees.
But when the neighbors started cutting back the brush with garden clippers, clearing out the scrub pines with handsaws, they found rows of pits in the soft earth — sometimes 4 feet deep.
Soon, a dozen graves became 100, then 100 revealed 1,000 more. And now, after 18 years, the volunteers around Wilson Avenue have cleared away a cemetery big enough to house a small town’s population — as many as 2,000 Black citizens of Dunn who were largely lost to time.
An artifact of Dunn’s Jim Crow history is still being revealed as neighbors slowly uncover Wilkins Cemetery with hardly a dollar in grant money or government aid, marking hundreds of plots with small white crosses made from PVC pipe.
Even unmarked, those graves tell stories: families who paid a quarter a week to live on small plots by the railroad tracks, families who moved away to Durham for tobacco jobs — all leaving their stubborn mark behind.
“When it rains, something will show up,” said James Rankin, a local barber in his 70s, standing by an infant’s headstone unearthed last week. “You’ll see the top of something. We’ve been out here 18 years and just found that one.”
‘It would be our church’
Just off Interstate 95, the lost cemetery in Dunn first drew attention nearly 20 years ago when the NC Department of Transportation’s rail division wanted to improve a train crossing, building a bridge where the tracks now cross a city street.
That work would have taken out several blocks in what is still a largely Black neighborhood, including Rankin’s barbershop. So he joined an effort to stop construction, along with Joy and Martin Williams, retirees who also live nearby.
Joy Williams describes DOT workers sizing up the gravestones to relocate without getting out of their cars on Wilson Avenue. Once the residents succeeded in blocking the rail project, they began digging deeper into the woods.
“We started with hand clippers, a hand saw and a machete,” she said. “It all had to be done by hand.”
“We had a guy with a machete get lost in there,” said her husband, Martin.
“My husband and I used to consider it our therapy,” she said. “It would be our church.”
They carted out hundreds of pines and sweetgum trees with a wheelbarrow, then sat on overturned buckets to cut the stumps with a reciprocating saw. They filled in the pits and smoothed out land that decades left disheveled.
Then, taking a cue from local folklore, Joy Williams walked the rows with a set of divining rods. If they pointed inward, someone was buried below.
“Works every time,” she said, demonstrating as the rods wiggled over the grave of James McLeane, a 2-year-old who died in 1909.
‘Somebody came to visit’
Until 1959, Joy Williams said, Wilkins Cemetery was the only place in Dunn for Blacks to be buried. Records are spotty for many of its inhabitants. Death certificates are not available. Much of what the volunteers have learned, they’ve taken from surviving relatives.
“Black people knew how much there was back here,” said Martin Williams. “The older ones.”
Dunn native Clifford Layton, who played baseball four years in the Negro Leagues, told Joy Williams his grandparents are buried in Wilkins, though they have no markers.
As James Rankin walked through knee-high brush yet to be cleared, he stopped near a long white slab for Lina Culbreath, who died in 1977 — a relative newcomer.
“My grandfather was friends with her family,” he said. “Lina was a teacher. She was strict. She was a good teacher, but she didn’t take no junk!”
Sometimes, Joy Williams said, the volunteer workers and family members they have found will sit at a picnic bench and tell stories about the history beneath them — the talk lasting until midnight.
For example, many of Wilkins’ dead date to the flu pandemic of 1918.
“They would bring Blacks down here in wheelbarrows three or four at a time, wrapped in blankets,” Joy Williams said. “They couldn’t get medical treatment at all.”
More come from the Finch family that owned some of the land where the dead are buried, according to the stories. Families who bought plots there paid 25 cents a week, payable at the family’s ice cream parlor, which was the only spot in Dunn a Black citizen could sit and have a treat.
Near the railroad tracks, Rankin points out a soldier’s grave: Joe Melvin, who served in World War II and died in 1950. Only recently, Rankin said, he uncovered a few pennies in the dirt near the headstone — too tarnished to read the dates.
“Somebody came to visit,” he said.
‘The way it should be’
Joy Williams is proud to have drawn help from both Black and white communities, from both sides of the political divide.
Small donations have paid for tools over the years. The city has provided fill dirt, and it gave one grant for a few thousand dollars. The Wilkins Cemetery volunteers were allowed to apply for it only once.
But not long ago, Williams was at Dunn’s steakhouse when she overheard a motorcycle club talking about how they needed a service project. She introduced herself to the men who ride with the Buffalo Soldiers of Raleigh, who now join her several Saturdays a month.
“We’re all here for the same purpose,” she said, “and we feel that’s the way it should be.”
Williams and Rankin led a path down the railroad tracks through tall weeds and brush. For at least a tenth of a mile, gravestones poked out of thick woods yet to be cleared, hiding names and stories still untold.
How you can help
Call Joy Williams at 910-892-3492 or write to Wilkins Cemetery Committee at 400 N. Wilson Ave., Dunn, NC, 28334.
This story was originally published August 25, 2022 11:35 AM.
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