STATESVILLE, N.C. — The Statesville community is steps closer to confirming how many people are buried in a cemetery that is rich in African-American history.
The Green Street Cemetery is considered Statesville's oldest public burial location for African Americans. It dates back to the late 1800s, a time when many Black people were born into enslavement.
Most of the graves are unmarked. However, those burials are now being recognized during a radar survey.
Omega Mapping Services is conducting a ground-penetrating radar survey at the Green Street Cemetery. The company has already confirmed 2,000 people who have been buried there.
Founder Len Strozier uses his equipment to identify the unmarked burial spots. He then marks the burials with orange flags.
“This is holy ground,” Stroizer said. “What’s sad for me is I’m able to show you what and where, but I don’t know the who, and the who is the best part.”
Shellie Taylor serves as the local history program specialist at the Iredell County Public Library.
Taylor says she felt chills after seeing the flags on the cemetery grounds.
“We knew there were going to be a lot of unmarked graves here — we didn’t really know how much,” Taylor said. “[Strozier’s] exceeding our expectations of how many we thought were going to be here.”
Taylor says this radar survey is important because it’s helping to preserve the city’s African-American history.
“We know probably at least a quarter of the people buried here were born prior to 1865, so they would’ve been born into enslavement, which makes this a very sacred place for Statesville,” Taylor said. “This was really the heart of the African American community in the late 19th, early 20th century, so this is a very special place for Statesville.”
Library employees recently posted on Facebook about employees and community members installing stainless metal markers on the unmarked graves. The metal markers are in place of the orange flags and will be identifiable with a metal detector.
Some residents, like Carolyn Templeton, say the radar survey process is long overdue in the Statesville community.
“As I have grown older, graveyards are more meaningful to me,” Templeton said. “When you walk [around a] graveyard, you can tell the stories. The story this graveyard tells is ‘I was here, but I am no longer identifiable for most of the graves.’ And I think if people are buried, their place should be marked and remembered.”
There are some Statesville residents who have family ties to the cemetery, and want that history preserved.
Natasha Lowe grew up in Statesville. Her family’s history extends throughout the neighborhood with a legacy stretching to the Green Street Cemetery.
“I think of those who came before me, who paved the way for us,” Lowe said.
Death certificates show some of Lowe’s relatives are buried at the Green Street Cemetery.
But so far, she says only one family member’s burial location is known.
Lowe says she’s feeling mixed emotions about the survey project, but she says she finds comfort knowing all the graves and many others are being recognized in the burial count.
“Happy and Sad,” Lowe said. “Sad that they were forgotten about, but glad they’re going to be recognized now.”
Lowe is hoping to one day discover the exact burial spots for other relatives at the cemetery.
“I do not know where they are. I’m not sure if there is a marker for them, if it’s one that can’t be read. We may not know exactly where, but we know that they’re resting among the other that are out here,” Lowe said.
Spectrum News 1 previously spoke with Lisa Mozer, a Statesville resident who’s been credited by other community members for her advocacy efforts with preserving the city’s black history.
Like some of her neighbors, Mozer has family ties to the city and The Green Street Cemetery.
“I am hopeful that one of the covered headstones will mark the grave of a great-great grandmother who we’ve been looking for,” Mozer said. “[We have not] been able to find a death certificate or her burial site and she’s very important to us because she was the last family member to survive enslavement.”
The ground-penetrating radar survey is a grant funded project through the North Carolina Humanities.
The library partnered with the City of Statesville, Downtown Statesville and the Statesville Branch of the NAACP to do it.
The radar survey is expected to be completed sometime later this month. When the count is completed, Omega Mapping Services will put the grave markers on a map so the burial locations are preserved for years to come.
The Green Street Cemetery is one of several locations residents are advocating to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.