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Old Chapel Hill Cemetery

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Burial Records

 

Location and History Overview

The Old Chapel Hill Cemetery, originally called the College Graveyard, is located on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It was originally used for internment of university students who died during their time at UNC. The rock wall around the cemetery was built in 1835.

About 1,600 burials are located in the cemetery, which is divided into six sections, A-B and I-IV. The cemetery was segregated by race, with Sections A and B serving as the African American part of the cemetery. The section designated for burials of African Americans was initially Section B. However, after the Civil War, Section A was added. Ellington Burnett, who died in 1853, is the earliest known burial in the African American section of the cemetery. Section I is the oldest white section of the cemetery. The first recorded burial there is that of student George Clarke, who died on September 26, 1798, but most burials in this section are from the 19th century.

The Old Chapel Hill Cemetery is on the National Register of Historic Places, [1] and it is currently owned and maintained by the Town of Chapel Hill.

National Register Nomination

Burials

The burials in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery are generally well known, however, burials in the African American parts of the cemetery were often marked only by a field stone, rather than a headstone with an inscription. Because of this, many of the stones, not recognized as grave markers, have been removed or relocated, leaving these sections with many unidentified graves. Most of those buried in this section were either slaves or University laborers, while others were the slaves of faculty members or other Chapel Hill residents. Later graves belong to freedmen who may have worked at the University.

Some of the known African American burials include those of freedwoman Nellie Strowd Strayhorn, who with her husband was able to successfully build a home and live in Chapel Hill during Reconstruction, a time of intense racial violence. Others include Wilson Swain Caldwell, a slave of the prominent Caldwell family; George Barbee, one of the oldest graves in the section; and Dilsey Craig, an enslaved person belonging to the Phillips family.

The white section of the cemetery houses burials of prominent Chapel Hill residents including faculty and staff of the University. There are also enclosures used by the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies for their member students. Some of the better known individuals buried in the white section of the cemetery include Joseph Caldwell, Nancy Hilliard, the proprietor of the Eagle Hotel, and Cornelia Phillips Spencer, among many others.[2]

Old Chapel Hill Cemetery Brochure

Preservation Issues and Efforts

The African American section of the cemetery has experienced several instances of vandalism, due in part to the issue with headstones lacking inscriptions and therefore not being recognized as graves. In the recent past, the western area of the cemetery, Sections A and B, was used as parking for visitors attending the 1985 football game against Clemson. The un-inscribed stones used to mark graves have also been used to help repair the stone walls that divide and enclose the cemetery. In 1999, the Black Student Movement at UNC lobbied for repairs to the headstones in the African American sections, as well as better acknowledgement of those buried there through the erection of a monument.[3]

Preservation Chapel Hill worked with Environmental Services, Inc., to complete archaeological surveys of the cemetery in 2010, 2012, and 2013. The 2010 survey focused on identifying unmarked graves within a portion of Section B, one of the historically African American sections of the cemetery. Geophysical surveying, ground penetrating radar, electrical resistivity, and soil density testing were all used to locate unmarked graves. Ground penetrating radar allows the surveyor to detect changes in the soil that indicate a disturbance that could be a grave shaft. Electrical resistivity similarly detects changes in the soil indicative of a grave shaft or of the metal hardware of a coffin. These methods resulted in the identification of 62 potential unmarked graves in Section B.[4]

Another survey took place in 2012 with the goal of identifying unmarked graves in the remaining portion of Section B, as well as Section I. Again, ground penetrating radar and soil density probing were used. This survey identified and additional 199 potential burials in the areas surveyed, with the majority of these being located in the historically African American Section B.[5]

September 2013 Section A Report

GPR Results of Sections B & I of Old Chapel Hill Cemetery Results of GPR in Section B of the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery

 

Investigation of a Portion of Section B 

Investigation of Portions of the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery, courtesy of ESI, Inc.

Old Chapel Hill Cemetery Archival Collection



[1] Terri Russ and Keith C. Seramur, Investigation of Portions of the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery, Chapel Hill, Orange County, North Carolina, September 2012, in the Preservation Archive, Neighborhood and Preservation Efforts Records, Preservation Chapel Hill.

[2] Chapel Hill Preservation Society and the Town of Chapel Hill Bicentennial Committee, The Old Chapel Hill Cemetery, 1993, in the Preservation Archive, Neighborhood and Preservation Efforts Records, Preservation Chapel Hill.

[3] Eve Modzelewski, “Demanding Proper Recognition,” The Daily Tar Heel, February 25, 1999, in the Chapel Hill Historical Society collection.

[4] Scott Seibel and Jay Thacker, Investigation of a Portion of Section B of the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery, Chapel Hill, Orange County, North Carolina, February 2010, in the Preservation Archive, Neighborhood and Preservation Efforts Records, Preservation Chapel Hill.

[5] Terri Russ and Keith C. Seramur, Investigation of Portions of the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery, Chapel Hill, Orange County, North Carolina, September 2012, in the Preservation Archive, Neighborhood and Preservation Efforts Records, Preservation Chapel Hill.

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