What is currently known as the West Chapel Hill Cemetery was established in 1949 as the public municipal cemetery predominantly for use by the African American residents of Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and the immediate surrounding area. The cemetery is located on Village Drive and is (and always has been) owned by the City of Chapel Hill.
Although the cemetery is relatively modern, it has been somewhat neglected over time. The first known survey of the cemetery was conducted in 1973; 44 marked graves, 6 unmarked graves, and one unassociated footstone were recorded. In 1975 the cemetery was resurveyed; 46 marked graves and 58 unmarked graves were recorded. There are currently 37 fully marked graves, and numerous noticeable unmarked graves, within the cemetery’s limits.
General cemetery timeline:
• The State of North Carolina’s legislature enacts “Use of cemeteries for burial of dead, according to race,” which ensured cemeteries were segregated according to race
Concerns regarding the condition, maintenance, and capacity of the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery
prompts the Town of Chapel Hill to consider opening a new cemetery or cemeteries
The Town also purchases approximately 10.5 acres northwest of town for their new cemetery for African Americans (now known as West Chapel Hill Cemetery
• The first interment takes place in the West Chapel Hill Cemetery
• A segregated section is created in the Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery; the first interment of an African American takes place in that cemetery
• The town limits the sale of plots within the West Chapel Hill Cemetery
• The town sells about 10 acres of the West Chapel Hill Cemetery property
• The last contemporary interment takes place within the West Chapel Hill Cemetery
• The last interment takes place within the West Chapel Hill Cemetery
Land Use History
In the northwest corner within the city limit of Chapel Hill (and overlapping Carrboro), was an area of town known partially as "Potters Field" (a.k.a. “New Town”) and partially as "Sunset" (formerly known as the “Craig Development”), and now generally known as Northside. Particularly since the early twentieth century, this area of town has historically been an African American neighborhood.
In 1944, part of the area just to the north of Potters Field-Sunset was to be used as a public park, particularly for the use of local African Americans. This park in its original configuration never came into being, but seems to have on a more limited scale in the late 1940s or early 1950s (although the land wasn’t officially purchased by the Town of Chapel Hill until 1969) and is now known as Umstead Park
In February 1949, the Town of Chapel Hill purchased a 10.6 acre piece of property (see image below) from John W. Umstead, Jr., and Sallie R. Umstead for use as the cemetery by/for the black residents of Chapel Hill. A brief mention in the March 11, 1949 edition of the Chapel Hill Weekly about the town purchasing the property noted it had previously been the “Roberson property” and was described as “on the outskirts of Carrboro and near Chapel Hill, just beyond the railroad from here."
February 1949 map, "Property of the Town of Chapel Hill, N.C. … for Colored Cemetery"
The cemetery property was part of the property earlier known as “The Old Claytor Place,” until the property was purchased by A. B. Roberson; the Umsteads purchased the property from Roberson’s heirs in 1947, and it became known as Elkin Hill. Although the cemetery property was purchased (for $10.00 “and other good and valuable considerations”) from the Umsteads, it seems to actually have been “traded” with the town of Chapel Hill by the Umsteads as an enticement or part of a deal so to be able to develop the surrounding property into the subdivision named Elkin Hill (later known as Colonial Heights).
The 1949 plan for the cemetery (redrawn in 1960) shows roads, open areas, and a branch of Bolin Creek. It also shows 173 numbered plots (69 in Section A and 104 in Section B) and 423 unnumbered plots within the cemetery (see image below). Most plots measure 12 by 20 feet, with some measuring 16 by 20 feet or slightly larger, and each plot was divided into six sub-plots. The eastern section of the cemetery was possibly a “potter’s field,” as described by the engineer for the Town of Chapel Hill in the 1970s, a Mr. Rose.
1949/1960 "Proposed Development of New Colored Cemetery"
The first known interment in the West Chapel Hill Cemetery is James Cobb, who died in rural Orange County October 29, 1949. Cobb was a World War One veteran, and worked as a cook and janitor at UNC. He died from a cerebral hemorrhage, and was buried in the cemetery November 1, 1949. The Town of Chapel Hill’s records for the West Chapel Hill Cemetery indicate that the earliest lots were purchased in November 1949.
Once integration/desegregation was enacted locally (circa 1965), the former exclusively white New Chapel Hill Cemetery
(now known as Chapel Hill Memorial
) was utilized for the interment of the deceased of all races, and the use of the West Chapel Hill Cemetery tapered off. The earliest known African American burial in the Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery was Hubert Atwater, Sr., who died March 31, 1955; the cemetery was segregated at that time, however.
Post-1955, the West Chapel Hill Cemetery seems to have been used exclusively by those families that already had purchased plots and for burials of indigent African Americans (again, similar to a potter’s field).
Within 15 years of Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery being opened to the interment of African Americans, the West Chapel Hill Cemetery was no longer used for burials and most of the property (about 10 acres of it) was resold (again, for $10.00) to Rock Springs Farm (which was owned and operated by the Umstead family); however, this was again essentially in exchange for another property. The property Chapel Hill received later became Umstead Park. According to deed records, this area appears to have been incorporated into the city limits in 1960.
Post-1969, the West Chapel Hill Cemetery was limited to 63 of its original plots (plots 4 through 27 of Section A, and plots 1 through 39 of Section B). Several plots in the northeast section, however, have been planted in trees and are currently unusable for burials.
In the 1970s, the Chapel Hill Cemetery Committee, chaired by Chapel Hill Alderman Shirley Marshall, worked with Reverend J. R. Manly and a group of local citizens and created a list of recommendations as to potential and desired improvements and upkeep of the cemetery. It seems as if some of their recommendations were carried out, but the renaming of the cemetery as the “Lewis Hackney Memorial Cemetery” never occurred.
The last known contemporary burial in this cemetery was Gladys Barbee, who died June 23, 1969. The last known burial in this cemetery was Willis Barbee, Sr., who died March 4, 1998. He was buried next to his wife and son
Plots in the West Chapel Hill Cemetery are no longer available for sale through the Town, but can be purchased from private owners (i.e. those who already own plots or subplots) when available. Between 2008 and 2011, only one inquiry as to a potential new burial (of cremated remains) was asked about from the cemetery coordinator for Chapel Hill.
With regards to the segregation of North Carolina cemeteries, Article 9 of the North Carolina Cemetery Act, Burial without regard to race or color (§ 65-72), was enacted in 1975 (and is still on the books and regularly renewed); it essentially prohibited public or private cemeteries within North Carolina from being able to discriminate with regard to the burial of a person based on the race or skin color of that person.