Dozens of volunteers gathered inside of a small storage building at the Historic Odd Fellows Cemetery in Winston-Salem. It was a cold January morning — not totally ideal for working outside, but everyone came prepared with gloves, boots, and hot chocolate. 

It’s a yearly tradition on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, for volunteers to come out to help clean the city’s largest African American cemetery that had long been neglected. 

Volunteers gather in Odd Fellows storage building to plan the day

Volunteers gather in a small storage building at the Historic Odd Fellows Cemetery on Martin Luther King Jr. Day before heading out to start cleaning. AMY DIAZ/WFDD

These days it’s starting to look like a cemetery again. Headstones, there’s a walking path, and a historic marker sign outside are clearly visible. There’s a lot more to do, but it took decades of work from volunteers to get the cemetery to this point. Deltra Bonner remembers the old days.  

“If you could just imagine it being so overgrown that the Kudzu and the weeds and the vines were over your head, and having to cut a path through to get down," Bonner said. 

She started volunteering at the cemetery 24 years ago. For her, it was personal. Bonner’s Aunt Helen is buried there.

“My family would come up every year. We would usually do Christmas and Easter and put flowers on her grave," Bonner said. "She died when she was like 12 or 13 years old. So she had been out here for a long time.”

That tradition continued until about 1975, when the cemetery had become so overgrown, that they couldn’t even walk through it to find her grave. It wasn’t until 2013, more than a decade after Bonner began working to restore the cemetery, that a volunteer found Aunt Helen’s plot during a clean-up.

“We had been trying to find her so long. My grandmother had passed and my mom had passed. But knowing that she was here and we couldn't get to her, that's what hurt so much," Bonner said. "And when that young lady came up to me and said, ‘I found your aunt.’ Oh, I was no good for the rest of the day.”

A pattern of neglect and encroachment

Bonner, and the rest of the volunteers, battled more than just overgrowth and Kudzu which, by the way, they ended up bringing in goats to eat and clear it out. They were also up against developers who had encroached on the property. Apartments had gone up, and businesses, and parking lots. The volunteers say there were graves on some of that land. 

These kinds of challenges aren’t unique to the Odd Fellows Cemetery. 

In the early 1940s, hundreds of graves at another local African American cemetery called Evergreen were relocated to make way for Smith Reynolds Airport to expand its runways. In 1966, graves were removed from one end of Happy Hill Cemetery due to the construction of U.S. 52. 

African American cemeteries across the country share similar stories of encroachment and neglect. To understand why, we need to go back to the reason African American cemeteries exist in the first place. 

“Regardless of where we are, these cemeteries start mostly because of segregation, and Jim Crow and all of that," said Debra Taylor Gonzalez-Garcia, the president of Friends of Geer Cemetery in Durham. 

She says these cemeteries exist because for a long time, African Americans weren’t allowed to bury their loved ones in public cemeteries.

They had to create their own burial spaces, which means they also had to be responsible for maintaining them. Over time, those caretakers died, relocated, or were displaced. And without support from the surrounding communities, or resources from their local governments, these cemeteries eventually fell into disrepair. 

Volunteers clean up the Historic Odd Fellows Cemetery

Volunteers worked to clean up the Historic Odd Fellows Cemetery on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. AMY DIAZ/WFDD

And then there’s the aspect of encroachment. 

“There are times where these cemeteries, and there are several in Durham, they become what I call islands, because there's been development built around them. And now there's no access to these cemeteries unless you go through private property," Gonzalez-Garcia said. "And to do that, you have to knock on that owner’s door and say, 'Can I go through your yard to get to the cemetery?' And they might allow you to do that once or twice, but how often before they get annoyed?”

She’d like to see changes to state and local laws to ensure there are buffer areas between the cemeteries and new buildings, as well as some added responsibilities for developers who buy land near those sites. 

Gonzalez-Garcia started volunteering to restore Geer Cemetery because she has a passion for genealogy, but it’s grown to be about more than that. 

“You're not only trying to preserve the history, but you're also trying to affect some of the social inequality that has happened," she said. "And you find yourself being a social activist.”

Volunteers lead restoration efforts

There are groups of volunteers like Friends of Odd Fellows, or Friends of Geer, all over the country with the same goals.

That’s why Gonzalez-Garcia is trying to create a coalition of African American cemeteries, where volunteers can meet virtually every month and learn from one another. 

“We're all going through the same thing. We're all doing the same thing," she said. "And you know, we need to be pooling our expertise together and helping each other out, especially people who are new to it.”

And sometimes the job is bigger than what your average volunteer can do. 

James Clyburn examines a headstone

James Clyburn examines a headstone at the Historic Odd Fellows Cemetery in Winston-Salem. AMY DIAZ/WFDD

Odd Fellows is more than 10 acres and has approximately 10,000 individuals buried there. It’s huge, and each section of the cemetery is different. Some areas have clear depressions in the ground, which makes it easier to see where the burials are. Others don’t, are crowded by trees, or have headstones that are broken and scattered.

This makes mapping the cemetery extremely challenging, according to Terry Brock, an archaeologist and research associate at Wake Forest University in the African American studies program. 

“So it's not quite as straightforward of a project as mapping, for example, the cemetery that's just down the road where everything's in nice, neat rows, and all the headstones are standing. And the lawn is nicely manicured, and things like that," Brock said. 

He says having access to ground-penetrating radar might do the trick, but that’s expensive. Mapping the cemetery will be a long and difficult process, but there are lots of other ways to help. 

“There’s plenty of raking to do here at Odd Fellows, and there's ways to be involved at any level, whether it's helping with research, or it's helping with clearing brush, or it's learning how to properly clean headstones," he said. 

Brock brings his students out to the cemetery from time to time to help out, but many of the volunteers at Odd Fellows are older and retired.

Linda Dark is one of them. She’s also the community liaison for the Winston-Salem African American Archive. For her, this work is about paying respect to the people buried there. 

“I just hate the thought of Black veterans who fought in the military under very trying circumstances and didn't get any recognition, and were just treated like, you know, dirt," she said. "That they never got to see, while they were on Earth, their recognition. So now at least we can give them some recognition.” 

Historic Odd Fellows Cemetery headstones

Volunteers have spent decades working to restore the Historic Odd Fellows Cemetery. Some areas are in better condition than others. AMY DIAZ/WFDD

She says there are also ministers, educators, formerly enslaved people, and entrepreneurs at Odd Fellows — people who lived, worked, and were a part of their community. 

“They did all kinds of things. And their families either have died out, or they've been forgotten. Or maybe their great, great, great descendants don't even know much about them," Dark said. "And so we just felt like, well, we're their family now.” 

Volunteers are out working at the Odd Fellows Cemetery every third Saturday, shoveling dirt, raking leaves, and picking up trash. 

They hope to make it a place where the community and descendants can come visit and learn about the people buried there — with all of the headstones clean and standing upright, with the vines and growth under control, and maps and records documenting the lives of the people at Odd Fellows, so they won’t be forgotten again. 

Amy Diaz covers education for WFDD in partnership with Report For America. You can follow her on Twitter at @amydiaze.

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