Historic Restoration at the John N. Smith Cemetery in Southport
Southport residents uncover the town’s rich historic African-American history as they restore the John N. Smith Cemetery.
Long ago in Southport a small band of volunteers traditionally gathered at the John N. Smith Cemetery every Memorial Day. At the 3-acre parcel, hidden from Southport’s main thoroughfares and shrouded by the canopies of ancient live oaks, they cleared four seasons’ worth of accumulated detritus from gravesites and straightened toppled gravestones.
But by the dawn of the twenty-first century that yearly tradition had ceased, and Southport’s only black cemetery was more a tangled wedge of unmaintained land than a revered burial place.
The cemetery was established in 1880 by Southport’s St. James A.M.E. Zion Church, and it was a member of that same church who came to the cemetery’s rescue in 2011. Judy Gordon recruited volunteers from Southport’s four other black churches with ties to the burial grounds, including her next door neighbor Gordon Walker, to form a nonprofit to fund the restoration.
Walker was motivated to help after listening to a story from a 93-year-old Southport woman. She told him about the quarantine huts on stilts at the mouth of the Cape Fear River where European immigrants died during a flu epidemic. “They would be buried in the old Smithtown cemetery,” Walker says. “White, non-Americans were buried in the town cemetery while blacks, who lived here for multiple generations, could not be buried there. That really got to me.”
As volunteers began uncovering buried headstones and clearing debris, Gordon pursued detective work to identify all of those entombed. Local churches and community members shared obituaries. A Southport Historical Society document from the 1980s identified the headstones for all Southport cemeteries. Gordon scoured Ancestry.com for death certificates that provided leads to spouses and other names.
But a personal connection proved to be her best source. “My great uncle Edward E. McCoy was an undertaker,” Gordon says. “He kept cemetery books through the early 1940s. We picked up a lot of names.”
Her list of names swelled to more than 900. But half of those names could not be found on gravestones. Across the cemetery’s neatly mowed grass, large swaths of land were void of headstones, and Gordon was certain many unidentified souls rested there.
Last year the group turned to an unorthodox tool for help — dowsing. Eddie Davis, the team’s chaplain, walked a section of the grounds with a pair of bent metal coat hangers. When his dowsing rods crossed in his hands, supposedly moved by unseen forces from a body below, a small piece of PVC pipe was used to mark the location. Owen Gidlow, a surveyor from Oak Island, recorded the exact locations of visible gravesites and dowsing markers.
Dowsing is a method used mostly for finding water, and Davis learned the technique from an expert dowser who had recently passed through the area. Researchers debate the effectiveness of dowsing.
A few months later the group traded the dowsing rods for modern technology, bringing in New South Technologies to use Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) equipment to scan for unknown gravesites. The $30,000 GPR device sent electromagnetic pulses into the ground to detect reflected signals that indicated graves.
Sarah Lowry, the firm’s trained archaeologist, rolled the machine along a carefully laid out grid using Gidlow’s survey. Few tombstones impeded her path. “What you see above the ground is not what you have below, especially in older, historic cemeteries,” she says. “There are always unmarked graves and people in the wrong place.”
The device located 891 probable burials. Only 133 of those sites had associated grave markers.
The results shocked Gordon. “I was expecting only a handful here and there, not over 750 new graves!” she says. “We’ll have more unmarked graves than marked graves when we’re finished.”
Ellie DeYoung, a board member for the cemetery nonprofit, at worries about the financial ramifications. “I am astounded by the number,” she says. “How do we raise the money to mark all of those graves. Granite grave markers cost $26 each.”
Funding may get a little easier since DeYoung led a successful effort to designate the cemetery as one of the Lower Cape Fear’s Most Threatened Historic Places. Yet the number of unmarked graves will soon climb. Half of the cemetery has not been surveyed, including the part where dowsing was used. Gordon’s team hopes to raise the $6,000 needed to complete the GPR work this year to reclaim more lost history.
Although the identities of many of the interred are unknown, the cemetery does offer a portal to Southport’s African-American past. “Anyone in a leadership position in Southport is buried there,” Gordon says.
Those buried include Frank Gordon, Judy Gordon’s great-grandfather, the first black school teacher in Brunswick County. Abraham Galloway, a slave, Union spy, militant abolitionist and one of the first African-Americans elected to the N.C. state legislature, died in 1870 and was reburied in Southport. Abram Blount, who joined the 37th Regiment United States Colored Troops in 1863 to fight in the Civil War, is buried in the cemetery, along with Spanish American War veteran Julius Jackson.
The name Elias Gore is highlighted on the cemetery’s sign. Known as Nehi the Gentle Giant, he reportedly stood an inch shy of 8 feet. Dropping out of school early, he plied the local waters for menhaden to allow his siblings to continue their education.
As Gordon seeks the identities of the deceased, she is also pursuing the living with links to Southport’s black history. Several oral histories have been recorded, including the recollections of 87-year-old James Frink. He described Southport as a rural town with a train running through an unused corner of the cemetery. “The train came straight through on Rhett Street, along the cemetery and down to the river. It brought coal to the pier for the freighters,” he says.
Frink recalled a role the cemetery played each year. “When I was real young, I remember the Memorial Day celebrations at the cemetery. There were speakers talking in religious tones, picnics and ice cream. Most graves were freshly adorned with shells and well maintained.”
Although segregation ruled at that time, Frink says it was accepted. “The African American community knew the white community and they knew us. People from the churches got together and cooperated. They were together on most things.” As far as integrated cemeteries with whites and blacks, Frink says, “It was not an option. Separate cemeteries were a tradition and everyone respected it.”
Frink, who has a family plot, plans to be buried in the cemetery. “I am thinking about cremation. I was thinking about space and I know there is room for my ashes,” he says with a laugh.
Space is indeed at a premium. New plots are not available, and the remaining 50 families with plots worry about room for future generations. Gordon’s team may provide the definitive answer, but it’s complicated.
“The depth that they buried people was moved from 6 feet to 4 feet,” Frink says. “And I believe it was very common to have a person buried on top of somebody else.”
Gordon adds, “No one really controlled where people were buried in the twenty by twenty foot grave sites. It’s very probable that people were buried outside their site and encroached on others.”
Even with all the team’s technology and research, some history will remain irretrievable for the John N. Smith Cemetery.
“We want a map like Arlington Cemetery where you know the location of everyone, but for us, there won’t be names for everyone,” Walker says.
Want to help?
If you’re interested in contributing to the restoration project at John N. Smith Cemetery in Southport, go to the John N. Smith Cemetery Restoration and Preservation Inc. website at johnnsmithcemetery.org
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