Efforts underway to clean up historic, overgrown Black cemeteries in North Carolina’s Triad area

Overgrown brush, litter, tree limbs, all covering the grounds at the Black Odd Fellows Cemetery where hundreds, maybe even thousands, rest in Winston-Salem.

Video Transcript

JAMES CLYBURN: Oh, it's real hard. I mean, you know, it's hard to think that where we was back then, they couldn't get in here. People were scared to come in.

RASHIDA KABA: Overgrown brush, litter, tree limbs all covering the grounds here at the Odd Fellows Cemetery where hundreds, maybe even thousands, of Black people rest in Winston-Salem.

JAMES CLYBURN: Well, I found out about it because my grandfather got a plaque across the road, and we used to come up and help cut the grass and cut through here to bring one of our loved ones to be buried over there. In the spot that we have that he had.

RASHIDA KABA: Decades later, the cemetery grounds left unattended falling into disarray.

JAMES CLYBURN: You couldn't get in here waist high, and you had to cut your way in with all the weeds growing on the ground and high up trees and everything. You had to cut your way in.

RASHIDA KABA: James Clyburn is one of the people who came forward becoming a Cemetery Board Member. He and other volunteers now spearheading efforts to help families access their loved ones who are buried here.

BELTRA BONNER: That's actually my mother and we were standing right above the caretaker's house not knowing how we would ever get to her grave.

RASHIDA KABA: That photo taken of Beltra Bonner and her mother during a volunteer search, looking for her aunt's grave back in the '90s.

BELTRA BONNER: In 2013 is when we actually found my aunt's grave.

RASHIDA KABA: So more than 20 years later.

BELTRA BONNER: Yeah.

RASHIDA KABA: Wow. And it's a lot of hard work clearing the grounds, back backbreaking work, and many of the people coming out to do it are older.

JAMES CLYBURN: There's a whole lot of young people just riding around doing something, but they don't even know they got loved ones, great grandparents or somebody, in here.

RASHIDA KABA: While some college students and boy scout troops have come out to do a service day, no one has fully committed to helping out long-term.

MAURICE PITTS-JOHNSON: It's a lot of history here.

RASHIDA KABA: And it's much of the same over at Happy Hill Cemetery, about 5 miles up the road.

MAURICE PITTS-JOHNSON: I just went brushed through until we could get some of the weeds down which had grown as tall as I am.

RASHIDA KABA: It was a place once called Happy Hill Projects. But many families were forced out of the area, some not knowing they were leaving behind a piece of their lineage.

MAURICE PITTS-JOHNSON: A lot of them have married, so the name has changed, and so it's hard to find the relatives, or find people who know that their grandparents are buried here.

RASHIDA KABA: Maurice Pitts-Johnson is not just a volunteer, her grandparents are buried here. She's been working for years to connect living family members to their loved ones by putting ads in the newspaper, but she hasn't had any luck.

MAURICE PITTS-JOHNSON: If it helps me to get relatives of persons who are buried here, it would be very important to me. Because I think that people need to know about their ancestors.

RASHIDA KABA: That's why both cemeteries need continuous cleanup to ensure they don't fall back into disarray. Maurice and James worry their work will one day die with them if others don't step up.

JAMES CLYBURN: We're trying to hold on and keep our interest.

MAURICE PITTS-JOHNSON: My hope is that we can finally get some kind of document that will allow this land to be preserved and not one day torn down or dug up to become some building, but that it would be preserved for history's sake.

RASHIDA KABA: Rashida Kaba, Fox8 News.