City manager Rochelle Small-Toney told city council the plan is to have the Unity Cemetery on the agenda for discussion at the council’s working session next month.
Councilor Reuben Blackwell raised the issue at Monday’s regular council meeting, where a resident spoke about the historically African-American cemetery and Councilor Andre Knight made remarks.
Small-Toney, in response to Blackwell, pointed out that the council had requested a report and made it clear that she and her team are committed to providing an update on Unity Cemetery during the March working session.
The board meets regularly twice a month, on the second and fourth Monday, and normally holds a working session before the start of the first regular meeting of the month.
The purpose of a working session is to discuss issues that Small-Toney and the board believe require further explanation, study, or discussion. Council working sessions are chaired by the mayor pro tem and city councilor Richard Joyner is currently the town’s number 2.
The next working session is scheduled for March 8 at 5 p.m.
The outcome of discussions at the February 8 regular council meeting made it clear that a future working session would include returning to a 2015 list of recommendations from then-municipal staff regarding Unity Cemetery.
The recommendations included permission from then-municipal staff to negotiate a maintenance and management plan for Unity Cemetery, which sits off Grand Avenue in the eastern part of town, between a Hardee’s restaurant and Shaq’s. After Dark.
Unity Cemetery is an 18 acre site. The cemetery dates back to at least the 1830s, but when family members died or left the Rocky Mount area, the cemetery began to look more like a forest than a burial place.
The condition of Unity Cemetery became more of an issue over the past year as resident Samuel Battle continued to bring up the topic during the public input phase of regular council meetings.
Tarrick Pittman, owner of computer services company CoolGeeks, began organizing a group that made a community clean-up effort at Unity Cemetery a reality on February 6.
Battle, Steve Cederberg, Steve Pridgen and Pridgen’s wife Tracy also played a key role in the cleanup effort.
Cederberg is Sales Director for the Rocky Mount-based Jay Group, which wholesalers footwear worldwide.
Steve Pridgen is a US Air Force veteran who works in tire sales and service. Tracy Pridgen has a long history of organizing and coordinating events in the Rocky Mount area.
The community cleanup group has scheduled a second cleanup from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on March 13 at Unity Cemetery, with a reset date of March 19 in the event of inclement weather.
During the public contribution phase of Monday’s regular council meeting, resident Hap Turner approached the speaker’s podium to talk about Unity Cemetery.
Turner said a study from when Steve Raper was city manager shows the town of Rocky Mount bought two acres of land adjacent to Unity Cemetery from two people.
Turner said information showed those two acres were in turn donated to the Unity Cemetery Association.
Turner also said the deeds show that the town of Rocky Mount subsequently transferred 23 one-person and one-church burial lots and that those 23 lots were part of the two acres the town had acquired from the first two people. .
“So in light of this compelling proof of deed, the Town of Rocky Mount evidently now has the authority and, more importantly, the duty to immediately undertake a cemetery restoration project – and to save this part of the Unity Cemetery and the remarkable African American history it holds, ”said Turner.
He suggested the city connect with the community cleanup group and engage the grassroots organization in another volunteer cleanup day, with a focus on those two acres.
He also suggested calling on a firm specializing in the study of cemeteries to carry out a ground radar survey in order to identify and draw up a map of the existing graves.
Later in the meeting, Knight, calling for redress for past moral injury of racial discrimination, cited what the then Rocky Mount Town Aldermen Council unanimously adopted at the late 1930s: “It will be illegal to bury any white person anywhere. within the City of Rocky Mount Business Boundary, except at Pineview Cemetery, or bury Blacks anywhere within the City of Rocky Mount’s Business Boundary, except the Unity cemetery.
Pineview Cemetery is located along Raleigh Boulevard southwest of Unity Cemetery. The Town of Rocky Mount operates the Pineview Cemetery.
Knight, whose Unity Cemetery is located, had the subject of the burial place added to the agenda for the February 8 regular council meeting after many volunteers got involved in the cleanup two days earlier.
At the February 8 regular council meeting, Knight said he believed the problem with what had happened two days earlier would be the lack of lifelong care once the hot rainy season arrives.
Knight has made it clear that he believes the upkeep of Unity Cemetery will be a major undertaking and that the Municipality is the only one capable of maintaining Unity Cemetery after the cemetery has been cleaned up.
At the February 8 regular council meeting, Knight said the town has started to focus its efforts on downtown redevelopment and improving the quality of housing in Rocky Mount, but he said council of the time had kept Unity cemetery as a priority.
There are also documents from the period 2014-2015 on the conclusions of the municipal staff of the time regarding the Unity cemetery.