Imagine that you are going to visit the final resting place of your loved one and you do not know where to lay flowers. Imagine that you didn’t feel comfortable walking on the land because of the large hidden roots that you could easily trip over and piles of trash strewn all over the property. Imagine being unable to find your loved one’s headstone because it cracked and fell or was covered in debris.
That’s what 76-year-old Joe Ford experiences when he visits his father’s grave at Cedar Grove Cemetery in Charlotte, located on Hildebrand Street off Beatties Ford Road. The best he can do is stand in the general area where he believes his father, John Ford, was buried in 1963 after he died of a heart attack.
“Oh, it was a beautiful cemetery when he was buried here,” Ford said. “But it would be very difficult for me to choose the site, you know, unless we found some type of marker.”
There is easily spotted evidence of people using Cedar Grove as a dumping ground or even as a place to stay. Empty beer bottles and shiny food wrappers litter the property. Toilet paper – used — is also present.
Ford was a teenager when his father died. He wants to help with any effort to restore the property, but he’s not sure who he should ask to get started.
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Headstones like this are easily stepped on or tripped over by leaves and branches that aren’t routinely cleaned.
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With no one to follow the ground, the fallen headstones remain that way for years.
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Journalist Osker Spicer wrote about the ownership confusion in 1982, even contacting Davidson’s two daughters who denied ownership of the property.
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Bishop Robert Blair Bruce was a prominent figure in the AME Zion Church.
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This tombstone that simply reads “JJ” is leaning over and will eventually fall.
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Many tombstones have fallen over these many years of neglect.
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Without regular landscaping of the property, greenery took over.
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The vines have slowly crept over the headstones over the years.
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Garbage bags thrown between the tombstones.
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The last known owner, John Davidson, is buried near the entrance to Cedar Grove.
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The ground is uneven throughout the property which has damaged the headstones and makes safe walking difficult.
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Garbage and furniture are regularly thrown on the ground
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Leaves cover the ground in Cedar Grove hiding large roots and tombstones.
“The main thing is to find the owner, you know, and get his permission,” Ford said.
The last known owner of Cedar Grove is buried near the front of the cemetery. Willie Griffin, the staff historian of the Levine Museum of the New South, recently stood by the headstone. John Davidson, who was black, bought the cemetery in 1955. He renamed it Cedar Hill Cemetery, but the name apparently didn’t stick, and later people started calling it Cedar Grove again.
Davidson operated a funeral home in Charlotte. He died in 1972.
“People have expressed concern about the state of the cemetery,” Griffin said. “Each time there may have been significant efforts to clean up, but each time it has fallen back into the dilapidated state it is in.”
And it is a very sad state. The ivy wraps tentacle-like arms around gravestones, eventually covering them or pulling them down. A veteran’s headstone has partially sunk into the ground and is tilted to the side. A flat rectangular memorial that simply reads “MOTHER” is covered in leaves and easily stepped on.
Griffin stood in front of one of the cemetery’s most elaborate and well-maintained headstones, belonging to Bishop Robert Blair Bruce, who was a senior AME Zion Church official and, according to reports, was a past president. of Mecklenburg County. .
“African American history in the city is often overlooked and it falls into a state where it goes unnoticed and it’s kind of all that grows around it,” Griffin said. “And we forget the lengths that African Americans have gone to trying to build communities.”
When Davidson died, care for the cemetery followed.
Burials continued at Cedar Grove until at least the early 1990s. But it is difficult to tell from the current state of the cemetery how many people are buried there or when the last person was buried there. At each detour, a family plot is discovered. Pull a branch, there is another grave. Additionally, when Davidson purchased the cemetery in 1955, it was already functioning as one. It is not known how many people were buried there when he purchased the land.
So who is responsible for maintaining this cemetery and why has it fallen into such disrepair? This is a question many journalists have tried to answer over the years.
In 1982, a reporter named Osker Spicer from the Charlotte News tracked down Davidson’s two daughters, who were living out of state. Spicer wrote that he found documents indicating that the property had been turned over to the women, but the two denied it. One hung up on him and the other said the city of Charlotte was responsible.
According to Spicer’s article, the city said at the time that it was not responsible for the cleanliness of private properties.
In 2022, that’s what the city is still saying, albeit now with an asterisk attached to that sentiment. There was a distinct change in tone. A city representative told the WFAE that he was interested in restoring Cedar Grove Cemetery and even pledged to do a survey to help define the cemetery’s legal boundaries. But Cedar Grove remains a complicated oddity because it was privately owned. Davidson’s two daughters are deceased, neither had known children, so there is no apparent heir.
Melissa Timo, historical cemeteries specialist for the North Carolina Office of State Archeology, says places like Cedar Grove often fall through the cracks “because it was a private family cemetery on property private and that the laws are designed to deal with another entity taking responsibility for that place at that time.”
Timo says there are state laws in place to protect these properties. But at the local level, the details of what needs to be done are hazy. One option, she says, is for the cemetery to evolve.
“Just because it’s a graveyard doesn’t mean it has to look like anything in particular,” Timo said. “These sorts of looser but still respectful ideas of what a cemetery might be can be less physically or financially taxing on people, but still help make it feel like it’s not just wasteland. “
For example, turning Cedar Grove into a small park with historical signs about the people buried there. Make it a space not only for families to come and honor their loved ones, but also for the public to learn more about its history.
But that often means neighborhood groups, schools, or other service organizations giving lots of time to organize regular cleanups.
Kevin Donaldson, a graduate student at UNC Charlotte, says he’s up for the job.
“You can’t help it when you come here, when you visit and see the decline it’s been in, it’s just sad,” he said. “And it just makes you want to come out here on the weekends with your clippers and trash bags and clean it all up.”
Donaldson worked with Griffin, and they discovered the history of Cedar Grove and tried to preserve it.
The first step is to cut down the sworn enemy of any graveyard – overgrown trees. Donaldson says there are more than 90 trees that should be cut down, a process that is ongoing.
“It’s like a museum to me,” Donaldson said. “Just because it’s a cemetery doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold so much history. The people who are buried here have so much history about the city of Charlotte that we will lose if this place continues to decline. .”
Donaldson is organizing a cleanup on Jan. 30 and says he has reached out to community members to form a board of directors to oversee the upkeep of Cedar Grove. One option could be forming an association that works with the city. In the past, when Cedar Grove has attracted media attention, there has been public outcry and a cleanup here and there. The goal this time is to make sure the maintenance is ongoing.
Donaldson also created a website called savecedargrove.org, where he hopes to connect with families seeking ways to preserve and restore the cemetery. Connecting with these families is essential if Cedar Grove Cemetery hopes to continue living.
Ford, whose father was buried in Cedar Grove about 60 years ago, agrees.
“Because my dad was a great dad, we were close,” Ford said. “I wish I knew where his grave is so I could start visiting him and bringing flowers, and that would mean a world to my family.”
And while it would be a way for everyone to see that while those buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery may be gone, they are not forgotten.
Special thanks to Caroline Robinson Spangler Room for access to archives and assistance in fact-checking.