The city council, after spending about an hour of working session Monday discussing the Unity Cemetery, approved the adoption of the recommendations of General Manager Rochelle Small-Toney and her team.
These recommendations include budgeting for municipal funds to restore and maintain the historically African-American 18-acre cemetery off Grand Avenue in the eastern part of town.
Among the recommendations is the establishment of a project at the cemetery that will be included in the Town of Rocky Mount’s upcoming long-term capital improvement program for fiscal year 2021-2022.
Small-Toney said she and her team estimate the project will cost at least $ 1.46 million over the next five years.
Recommendations include establishing an operating budget for Unity Cemetery, with that operating budget to begin with an estimated $ 200,000.
Recommendations also include:
- Ensure that the cemetery is named a national monument.
- Explore and seek out as many grants as possible to support the cemetery.
- Development of a cemetery plan under the direction of the State Archives and History Office.
- Establish the location and inventory of all burials in the cemetery.
- Develop a historic tourism program for the cemetery.
Small-Toney also recommended that city council form a group of descendants of those buried in the Unity Cemetery. She said the group should include conservation consultants and local historical societies working with municipal staff to help guide the future of the cemetery.
Unity Cemetery was established in 1901 by a group of citizens who asked the General Assembly to approve the incorporation of a private funeral association in or near Rocky Mount for the burial of African Americans. The association’s trustees, in turn, were given the right, on behalf of the association, to purchase land for sale for funeral plots.
Small-Toney told council that descendants of those buried at the cemetery are responsible for the upkeep of their own plots. However, over the years, as family members died or moved away from the Rocky Mount area, the cemetery began to look more like a forest than a burial place.
Small-Toney told council there was no definitive information that could be used to declare the cemetery abandoned, which would give the city an opportunity to acquire ownership of the cemetery.
Small-Toney made it clear that if council wanted the municipality to own the cemetery, then it would be essential and necessary to conduct an investigation to determine the boundaries of the cemetery.
City attorney Jep Rose has also made it clear the importance of carrying out this investigation as a first step.
Small-Toney also said the municipality should conduct a deed search to determine the heirs of the purchased plots, as well as the owner (s) of the cemetery. She said the municipality’s access to burial records is limited, which means it would be difficult to determine the exact number of locations and their descendants.
She noted that widely known standards for cemeteries estimate that a cemetery has 1,000 burial sites per acre, which means Unity Cemetery could potentially have 18,000 burial sites.
She said she and her team would like to get legal guidance from Rose on the best course of action for the municipality to have access to the maintenance and improvement of the cemetery. Small-Toney said this would be done through a possible rental agreement with the owner (s), a purchase of the cemetery or a legal transfer of the land.
The condition of Unity Cemetery became more and more of an issue over the past year when resident Samuel Battle continued to bring up the topic during the public input phase at regular council meetings.
Tarrick Pittman, owner of computer services company CoolGeeks, has started organizing a group that made a community cemetery clean-up effort a reality on February 6 – and another cemetery clean-up is scheduled for 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday h.
At Monday’s council business meeting, Assistant City Manager for Budget and Assessment Kenneth Hunter spoke about money to be spent on the cemetery.
Hunter said the municipality currently has funds to reallocate to complete the necessary site survey and possibly some initial work to see the approach to deeds research.
Hunter said most of the spending will be set for the 2021-2022 fiscal year.
Hunter said about $ 150,000 would be spent on thinning, by hand, small brush and trees, $ 50,000 would be spent on repairing the graveyard roads, $ 200,000 would be spent on surveying the graves, $ 50,000 would be spent on developing a cemetery maintenance plan, $ 100,000 would be spent on restoring the graves and an estimated $ 75,000 account would be opened for perpetual maintenance.
He also said there would be an allocation of $ 50,000 for fiscal year 2022-2023 for setting up historical markers and information kiosks.
City Councilor Andre Knight has made it clear that he believes the city should take full ownership of Unity Cemetery.
âAnd if we’re going to take it as abandoned in order to move the process forward, then I think that’s what we need to do,â Knight said.
Knight also made it clear his belief that in trying to determine ownership of Unity Cemetery, when talking to one of the owners the answer is, “Well, we don’t own it,” and when the we talk to another owner, the answer is, “We just own some plots around it.” “
Knight has also made it clear that he believes Unity Cemetery should receive the same lifelong care as Pineview Municipal Cemetery southwest of Raleigh Boulevard or any other municipal cemetery.
A city ordinance made it illegal for years to bury any white person anywhere in Rocky Mount, except Pineview Cemetery, or bury any black person anywhere in Rocky Mount, except for Unity cemetery.
Knight also spoke about previous councils’ attempts to attempt to restore and maintain the Unity Cemetery.
As to the reason for planning the restoration and funding of the Unity Cemetery, he said: âWe owe it to our citizens. We owe it to our ancestors who were discriminated against. We owe it to them to bring dignity back to this cemetery.
City Councilor Reuben Blackwell said the town should address the harm done to generations of blacks in Rocky Mount who have had to pay to care for their dead while paying taxes to the town of Rocky Mount to care for the dead white.
âAnd the way I see it, we owe those who died before us the honor to say that it was never your private responsibility,â Blackwell said.
âIt was never their private responsibility,â Blackwell said. âIt was forced on them by bad public policy, by systematic oppression – and we are trying to correct that image.
“And I think that’s where our story has to start – not that the Town of Rocky Mount doesn’t own Unity Cemetery, but the Town of Rocky Mount doesn’t have a black public option. to bury their dead from 1901 whenever it started, âBlackwell said.