A cemetery has long been a space that provides me with introspection and, oddly, comfort. Yes, it is a place of loss and mourning. It can also evoke feelings of peace, history, and reverence, and glimpses into the lives of those that have lived, toiled, loved, and died. I often wonder who went before us and what their lives were like. What can be learned from the many stories and histories attached to a burial place? What happens if these resting grounds disappear?
Moving to Asheville from Miami in October 2020 provided a much-needed reset for my life. I settled in Kenilworth, just a half mile from the South Asheville Cemetery, a place that captured my heart and artistic interest from the moment I saw it.
The cemetery was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places. Attending a dedication ceremony in August for Asheville Watchdog, I became even more intrigued by the cemetery, its history and the people who labored for decades to preserve it.
About 2,000 African Americans are laid to rest on the two-acre burial site behind St. John “A” Baptist Church. The cemetery began as a slave burial ground on property owned by William Wallace McDowell (1823-1893). Its first caretaker, George Avery, was enslaved by McDowell.
Historians say Avery, then 19, left in 1865 and enlisted in the 40th United States Colored Troops, serving in the Union Army until 1866. He returned to Buncombe after the Civil War and continued to oversee burials at the cemetery until his death in 1938. Unable to read or write, Avery memorized burial locations. He earned one dollar for each grave he dug.
No written burial records about the cemetery or its occupants were kept. A headstone marking Avery’s gravesite is one of only 93 markers identifying the interred. Many were buried in wicker baskets or pine coffins, their graves marked only by field stones or handmade crosses.
The cemetery sat neglected for years, overrun by weeds and brush. In the 1980s, members of the neighboring church, led by George Gibson and George Taylor, began to clean up the site, joined by volunteers who over the last 30 years number in the thousands.
“So many African-American cemeteries locally and nationally have been simply covered over with development,” said Ellen Holmes Pearson, chair of the South Asheville Cemetery Association and a history professor at the University of North Carolina Asheville.
Pearson brought students to the cemetery for a workday in 2005 and has remained involved since.
Dave Moore, a retired archaeology professor from Warren Wilson College, also joined the effort, bringing students and alumni who created a mapping system and located unmarked graves.
Pearson spoke at the August dedication recognizing the cemetery on the national registry. More than 100 people attended a ceremony held in the church.
“The South Asheville Cemetery is the most sacred of places. It’s a place of hope and of rest, a serene oasis in the midst of this urban space. It holds thousands of souls and it harbors many thousands more stories,” Pearson said. “The people who rest here helped to build Asheville and Western North Carolina. With their intellect, their skills, their sweat, their blood, they raised families and built homes, churches, businesses here. They comprised the backbone of our communities.”
I met many of the people involved in this important restoration that day, including George Gibson and his eldest daughter, Olivia Metz.
Gibson, now 94, recalled being in class at South Asheville School for Black Students on the grounds near the cemetery and seeing a hearse pull up. He would be called from class to help move the casket to the cemetery and then dig the grave.
Metz, in a visit to the cemetery, told me, ”We are ecstatic that this place has received national historic designation. My dad and the volunteers that have worked here gave a labor of love, a labor of giving, a labor of respect. We now have what Black residents before us did not have.
“Enslaved people, freed people, soldiers and families from the surrounding area are buried here,” she continued. “A lot of babies are buried along the lower fence line after a bad pneumonia. It is important that we revisit and take care of our cemeteries.
“This is our history and this is our life that goes on. This is what our young people have to look to — to understand where we have come from and where we hopefully will go.”
Meeting Gibson and his daughter, and hearing about their lives and long history with the cemetery, moved me.
Volunteering as a photographer/videographer for Asheville Watchdog has given me a “backstage” view of Asheville experiences, history and people. I’m grateful for the in-depth reporting my colleagues do and for providing the visual elements that give our readers a comprehensive look at the issues and events that inform us all.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Starr Sariego believes in using photography for social change. Her latest project, This Skin I’m In, features portraits of the LGBTQIA+ community in Western North Carolina. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.