Weathered headstones, many so worn that their inscriptions are barely legible, lay toppled among decades’ worth of fallen leaves.
Vines ensnarl other monuments, several from the late 1800s, as if trying to protect them from toppling like the others. Fragments of other stones, their graves of origin unclear, dot the uneven ground under a high canopy of living and dead trees.
It’s unclear how many graves actually are in the overgrown cemetery behind Watkins Chapel AME Zion Church, near the intersection of Statesville Avenue and Broad Street. What is certain is that most or all of those buried there are African-Americans.
And Pam Reidy is determined to turn their final resting place into something that brings dignity to their memory.
‘Learned by coincidence’
Little was done to the cemetery after the town of Mooresville bought it from the church in 2012. The neglect continued until Reidy was tapped two years ago to lead the town’s parks and recreation department.
“I wasn’t even aware for a long time that this parcel was town property,” Riedy said. “When I learned by coincidence one day that the town purchased the parcel ... and little had been done to the site since that time, I knew it was time to act.”
Reidy developed a multistep plan to restore the cemetery, a process that began in January when more than two-dozen volunteers hauled limbs, cut vines and removed trash as part of a Martin Luther King Jr. Day service project.
“We ended up with huge piles of debris and vegetation, but it will take many more cleanup days to complete the project,” she said. “We will schedule our next one in the spring.”
Reidy said she has recommended about $20,000 in next year’s operating budget for tree removal at the cemetery.
“Unfortunately, more trees than not are dead or dying and will need to be removed,” she explained.
‘We owe it’
When clearing is complete, the town will haul in fill dirt from its other cemeteries to even the undulating ground. The flat surface will make it easier for outside contractors to use ground-penetrating radar to actually locate the graves.
“Once complete, we will begin discussions with the community about how to proceed,” Reidy sad. “Should individual graves be marked? If so, how? What story should we tell about the cemetery on the entrance sign?”
The conversations also will drive a decision on whether to plant grass, similar to the adjacent town-owned Green Acres cemetery, or to preserve a more natural look.
The town also will consider whether to make the former church cemetery part of Green Acres.
“It is our intention to bring respect to this cemetery in the same manner we do with Glenwood, Willow Valley and Green Acres,” Reidy explained, citing the other town-owned cemeteries. “We owe it to those who have this as their final resting place, and to their families who are still with us today.”