For many years, Black people were not allowed to purchase plots or be buried in Pineview — the cemetery owned and maintained by the City of Rocky Mount.
But on Nov. 15, 1915, Rocky Mount purchased two acres of property next to the privately owned Unity Cemetery and opened the first city cemetery where Black people could purchase lots and bury their loved ones — a “separate but equal” cemetery. The cemetery is the final resting place for many important and beloved Black ancestors.
But sometime during the long reign of racial segregation and all-white rule, the City of Rocky Mount abandoned its duty and responsibility to keep this cemetery maintained and accessible. Neglected for so many years by the City of Rocky Mount, the cemetery is now lost in the woods and falling into ruin.
The research that uncovered the shameful fate of this historic cemetery was inspired by Rose Foxx Hunter, president of the Buck Leonard Association for Sports and Human Enrichment.
Beyond administering the well known inner-city youth baseball league, as leader of the “Cross Town Front Porch Project,” Hunter is leading the charge for an honest evaluation process for the many undesignated historic properties in her community. And she encourages many others, young and old alike, to “see” the significance of the African American ancestors who built, owned and lived out their lives in “the Neighborhood.”
Two graves easily located in this neglected historic cemetery are those of Frank W Davis, a highly successful entrepreneur, and community builder, and Peter Darden, the first African American elected to the Rocky Mount Board of Aldermen.
The city’s plan for opening a second public cemetery for Black use can be traced back to Dr. Booker T Washington’s November 2, 1910 visit to Rocky Mount, and the tremendous impact it had on 50-year-old public servant Thomas H. Battle as he personally struggled with the complexities of providing just and fair leadership for both the Black and the White races.
On his tours across America, Dr. Booker T Washington liked to meet with locally prominent Black citizens in their own homes, helping to strengthen their social standing within both Black and white society. In Rocky Mount, he enjoyed dinner and a toast at Dr. Peter W. Burnett’s house at 340 Pennsylvania Ave. (extant), where the Rev. J. Burton Harper served as toastmaster.
And in the weeks preceding his Rocky Mount visit, Washington promoted the “entirely owned and operated by Negroes” Rocky Mount Silk Manufacturing Company, Frank W. Davis, president of the Board of Directors, and Champ F. Rich, secretary and attorney of the company.
At the end of their feast, the Saint Paul School band from Tarboro led a joyous procession from Burnett’s house around the corner to the British American Tobacco Company Prize House at 200 Goodleaf St., where Washington spoke before a crowd of 4,000, including an estimated 1,000 white people. Full of excitement, people hung from the rafters and balanced on hogsheads, trying to see the famous guest.
Thomas H. Battle, the “Father of Rocky Mount,” introduced Washington at the huge bi-racial gathering. He later wrote to his mother that his experiences that afternoon represented the “epitome of my life’s work.”
This momentous occasion led him to reevaluate his own political future and the plans for Rocky Mount’s future development. He had retired from politics several months prior to Washington’s visit but afterward determined to remain as an alderman and then led the city in the purchase of two acres of land and the establishment of the first public Negro cemetery.
Soon after the cemetery property was purchased in 1915, the city began selling lots to prominent African Americans. And for more than 25 years lots were sold and African Americans buried their loved ones. Then in the 1940s the city opened a second segregated cemetery off Virginia Avenue, later named Northeastern. The city placed new regulations over the Northeastern Cemetery property, aimed at lowering city maintenance costs by facilitating mechanical mowing and easier upkeep, e.g., restricting monuments and placing prohibitions on concrete curbs.
Now after many years of public neglect, there’s a growing number of disappearing gravesites in the city’s first segregated cemetery at the end of Grand Avenue. Two exceptionally significant historic graves, which sadly are missing, are those of William Lee Person and his wife Rena, who, in 1888, alongside Thomas H. Battle, were founding members of a new and improved industrialized Rocky Mount, an important part of America’s “New South.”
Today this city-owned cemetery stands in ruins, dishonoring the historic value of the life and times of many remarkable African Americans. But in his 1910 introduction of Booker T. Washington, Thomas H. Battle made the promise of equity of the town law to 3,000 African-American citizens, including Frank W. Davis.
“When I began my first campaigns I talked with the leading negroes and explained my ideas of progress and promised them absolute fairness and justice before the town law, explaining that there was no politics in it all, and that the strongest government was the safest one for the weakest citizens, that I would trust them and they must trust me.”
African American citizens who made good faith purchases in the city’s first Black cemetery must have the equity of their final resting place restored. Thomas H. Battle, interred in the perpetually maintained Pineview Cemetery, would be deeply disappointed by his city’s broken promise.