Paula Williams visited her great-grandmother’s grave for the first time in years in September 2020.
Although she grew up in Charlotte, the cemetery where her great-grandmother Maggie Winchester and her great-great-grandparents Frank and Amanda Lee were buried was “out of sight and out of mind” during the most of Williams’ childhood. A recent conversation with a cousin revealed that the cemetery was not maintained.
As she walked through the tall grass, she searched for her great-grandmother’s name among the tombstones.
But he was almost impossible to find, although there were less than 50 graves in the small cemetery. The hardened dirt and overgrown weeds made many names on the headstones illegible, including Winchester’s.
“I had to walk to every grave there,” Williams recalled. “I was honored to finally see his name, but you couldn’t really read it. It kind of bothered me.
“I decided that something had to be done about it.”
Siloam Cemetery, sometimes spelled “Salomé”, is nestled in North Charlotte on a quiet road off Interstate 85. The cornerstone of the Siloam community was the Siloam Presbyterian Church, to which the cemetery was attached until a fire destroyed the church decades ago. .
Today, the last remnants of the community are Siloam School, a historic Rosenwald-era school built to educate black children in the segregated rural south in the early 1900s, and the cemetery a few miles away, which historians say was probably built by newly enfranchised people when the church was built.
A a renewed effort to restore the cemetery was recently sparked by relatives of those buried in the cemetery’s three dozen graves. And the Mecklenburg chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Charlotte Museum of History joined the mission.
“The people who were buried there made some sort of contribution to life in Mecklenburg County,” Williams said. “I feel like every life is worth cherishing.”
Although Frank Bauknight was a young boy when he met his great-grandfather, he remembers him well.
“I think he was kind of fun, and the others couldn’t stand it,” Bauknight said. “He was always thinking before the game. … He was off the chain.
In a 1956 Observer article that gives Lee the age of 115, Lee recalled his days of slavery and is quoted as saying that “only the Lord” could explain his longevity.
He only lived a few years after the article was published, Bauknight said, and he is buried in Siloam Cemetery. After Lee’s death, Bauknight said he only visited the cemetery once for a family funeral – until he heard about Williams’ efforts to breathe new life into him a while ago. months.
It took many calls and many hours for Williams to discover that the cemetery belonged to the Charlotte Rectory. Then, she began to meet the members of the committee in charge of the maintenance of the cemetery.
“Let’s keep it clean out of respect for the people buried there,” Williams recalled telling them. “Let’s clean it up, make it look presentable. You wouldn’t even know it was a cemetery.
They have been waiting for months for news from the parsonage about the repair of the cemetery fence, as well as the addition of lighting and a sign, but in the meantime two other organizations have stepped in to help.
Cemetery of Siloam
Since 2017, the Charlotte Museum of History has received almost three quarters of his million dollar goal to move the historic Siloam School from his home north of Charlotte to display at the museum in an effort to preserve an important piece of local black history.
Fannie Flono, who chairs the museum’s Save Siloam School Project, said preserving the cemetery was also important to the museum, as many of the people buried there have contributed to the Siloam School and the rest of life in this community.
And now that the area surrounding the cemetery is rapidly developing, the cultural landscape of the Siloam community is being lost.
Museum historian Angel Johnston said one of the intentions of preserving the school and cemetery was to document life in rural Mecklenburg County.
While there are still many unknowns about the cemetery, Johnston said the descendants of the people buried there, like Bauknight and Williams, are helping historians learn more about Charlotte’s history through a project. of oral history.
“If we can connect with people, then that’s a way for us to learn more about the community,” she said. “For cemeteries, not only are they places where you can learn about the history of your community, but they are also important because of memory and the connection of family spaces.”
Jeanie Cottingham, a member of the Mecklenburg Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and chair of the organization’s Historic Preservation Committee, heard about the plight of descendants to preserve the cemetery as a member of the museum’s board of trustees and wanted to get involved with their mission.
“So many African American stories have been pushed aside,” she said. “These stories deserve to be told.”
Back to life
Under cloudy skies, nearly two dozen members of all parties invested in caring for the tomb — the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Charlotte Museum of History and descendants of those buried there — gathered at the Siloam cemetery on April 2.
For hours, the group picked up trash, removed leaves and branches from graves, and removed vines from the fence that surrounds the cemetery. While working, Frank Lee was on Bauknight’s mind.
“I kept thinking about him,” Bauknight said. “He came to mind then, and he comes to mind all the time.
“Being there brought the family together.”
Other clean-up days will be scheduled throughout the year. Although Williams was unable to attend the most recent event, she plans to come to the next one. And Bauknight will be back soon – there are still vines on the fence, and he’s newly determined to remove them.
“It’s essential that we step up and try to keep this place alive, rather than letting it sit and deteriorate,” he said.
“We’re going to try and bring this thing back to life.”
This story was originally published April 20, 2022 06:00.