West Chapel Hill Cemetery

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Location and History Overview

The West Chapel Hill Cemetery was established in 1949 by the Town of Chapel Hill to be used by African American citizens of Chapel Hill and Carrboro. By this time, the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery faced concerns over capacity and maintenance. Since the West Chapel Hill Cemetery was developed after a 1947 North Carolina state law required the “use of cemeteries for burial of dead, according to race,” the cemetery served as the new burial location for African Americans while another new cemetery was established for whites, which is now the Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery.[1] The land for the new African American cemetery was purchased by the Town of Chapel Hill from John W. Umstead, Jr. and Sallie R. Umstead. It is located near Jay Street, on the edge of Carrboro and Chapel Hill.

The plan for the cemetery included 173 numbered plots and 423 unnumbered plots, with each plot being divided into six sub-plots, allowing for 4,200 burials.[2] 

Burials

The first known burial is that of James Cobb, who died on October 29, 1949. Cobb was a cook and janitor at UNC, as well as a World War I veteran. Because the cemetery was not in use for very many years (its peak of use was between 1949 and 1955), the number of burials is low compared to the number of available plots. Desegregation resulted in the use of the previously whites-only Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery for burials of all races. The West Chapel Hill Cemetery was then only used for those who had already purchased plots. Later, since use was limited, a portion of the original land for the cemetery was sold. By the 1970s, the cemetery only had 63 of its original plots. The last known contemporary burial was Gladys Barbee in June 1969, and the last known burial was Willis Barbee, Sr. in March 1998.

In 1973, the first archaeological survey of the cemetery was carried out, revealing 44 marked graves, 6 unmarked graves, and 1 footstone. The cemetery was surveyed again in 1975, finding 46 marked graves and 58 unmarked graves. As of 2011, there were 37 fully marked graves with many other recognizable unmarked graves. The survey also resulted in a list of 48 known, 4 likely, 3 possible interred. Interestingly, through the analysis of death certificates, there seems to not have been one universally used name for the cemetery.[3]

Steve Rankin Report

Archaeological Findings

In 2011, a survey was done to locate marked and unmarked, undocumented graves. The survey used pedestrian inspection, electrical resistivity survey, and soil density testing. Some grave shafts and field stone markers were visible, making pedestrian inspection a valuable tool. The geophysical surveying methods were used to identify those graves that were not visible above the ground surface. The survey found that 60 percent of Sections A and B of the cemetery are not located within the present-day fenced in cemetery area. A portion of Section A is under Jay Street while a portion of Section B is located under nearby homes, built in the 1970s. Thirty-seven marked graves were recorded, and the archaeological methods indicated an additional 66 unmarked graves. Ninety-six additional potential graves were discovered as well, for a total of 199 likely graves within the portion of the cemetery that is still maintained today.[4]

Investigation of the West Chapel Hill Cemetery by ESI, Inc.

Find A Grave


[1] Quoted in Steve J. Rankin, A Segregated Part of Heaven: The History of the West Chapel Hill Cemetery, May 2011, in the Preservation Archive, Neighborhood and Preservation Efforts Records, Preservation Chapel Hill.

[2] Quoted in Steve J. Rankin, A Segregated Part of Heaven: The History of the West Chapel Hill Cemetery, May 2011, in the Preservation Archive, Neighborhood and Preservation Efforts Records, Preservation Chapel Hill.

[3] Rankin.

[4] Terri Russ, Investigation of the West Chapel Hill Cemetery, Chapel Hill, Orange County, North Carolina, July 2011, in the Preservation Archive, Neighborhood and Preservation Efforts Records, Preservation Chapel Hill.

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