City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney told the City Council the plan is for Unity Cemetery to be on the agenda for discussion at the council’s work session next month.
Councilman Reuben Blackwell raised the question amid Monday’s council regular meeting, at which a resident spoke about the historically African-American burial ground and Councilman Andre Knight made remarks.
Small-Toney, in response to Blackwell, pointed out that the council had asked for a report and made clear that she and her team are committed to providing an update about Unity Cemetery during the March work session.
The council has regular meetings twice a month, on the second and fourth Mondays, and normally has a work session prior to the start of the first regular meeting of the month.
The purpose of a work session is to discuss matters Small-Toney and the council consider to be requiring a more in-depth explanation, study or discussion. Council work sessions are chaired by the mayor pro tem and Councilman Richard Joyner presently serves in the city’s No. 2 position.
The next work session is scheduled for 5 p.m. on March 8.
The result of discussion during the Feb. 8 council regular meeting made clear that a future work session would include going back over a list of recommendations from 2015 from the then-municipal staff about Unity Cemetery.
The recommendations included allowing the then-municipal staff to negotiate a maintenance and management plan for Unity Cemetery, which is off Grand Avenue in the eastern part of the city between a Hardee’s restaurant and Shaq’s After Dark.
Unity Cemetery is an 18-acre site. The cemetery can be traced at least as far back as the 1830s, but as family members either died or moved away from the Rocky Mount area, the cemetery began looking more like a forest than a burial ground.
The condition of Unity Cemetery increasingly became an issue last year when resident Samuel Battle kept bringing up the subject during the public input phase of council regular meetings.
Tarrick Pittman, who owns the CoolGeeks computer service business, began organizing a group that made a community cleanup effort of Unity Cemetery a reality on Feb. 6.
Battle, Steve Cederberg, Steve Pridgen and Pridgen’s wife, Tracy, also had key roles in the cleanup effort.
Cederberg is sales manager at the Rocky Mount-based Jay Group, which is in the wholesale shoe business worldwide.
Steve Pridgen is a U.S. Air Force veteran who is in the tire sales and service business. Tracy Pridgen has long been active in putting together and helping coordinate events in the Rocky Mount area.
The community cleanup group has set a second cleanup for 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on March 13 at Unity Cemetery, with a reset date of March 19 in case of foul weather.
During the public input phase of Monday’s council regular meeting, resident Hap Turner approached the speaker’s podium to talk about Unity Cemetery.
Turner said there is a study from when Steve Raper was the city manager showing that the City of Rocky Mount purchased from two people two acres of land adjacent to Unity Cemetery.
Turner said the information showed those two acres were in turn given to the Unity Cemetery Association.
Turner also said deed records show that the City of Rocky Mount later conveyed 23 burial lots to a person and a church and that those 23 lots were part of the two acres the municipality had acquired from the first two people.
“So in light of this indisputable deed evidence, the City of Rocky Mount obviously now has the authority and, more importantly, the duty to immediately undertake a cemetery restoration project — and save this portion of Unity Cemetery and the remarkable African-American history it holds,” Turner said.
He suggested the city connect with the community cleanup group and engage the grassroots organization in another volunteer cleanup day, with the focus being on those two acres.
He also suggested hiring a firm specializing in the study of cemeteries to conduct a ground-penetrating radar survey to identify and make a map of the existing gravesites.
Later during the meeting, Knight, calling for righting a past moral wrong of racial discrimination, cited what the then-City of Rocky Mount Board of Aldermen in the late 1930s unanimously adopted: “It shall be unlawful to bury any white person in any place within the corporate limits of the City of Rocky Mount, except in Pineview Cemetery, or to bury any Negroes in any place within the corporate limits of the City of Rocky Mount, except in Unity Cemetery.”
Pineview Cemetery is along Raleigh Boulevard southwest of Unity Cemetery. The City of Rocky Mount operates Pineview Cemetery.
Knight, in whose ward Unity Cemetery is located, had the subject of the burial ground added to the agenda of the Feb. 8 council regular meeting after numerous volunteers engaged in the cleanup two days earlier.
During the Feb. 8 council regular meeting, Knight said he believed the problem with what had happened two days earlier will be the lack of perpetual care once the warm-weather rainy season arrives.
Knight made clear he believes that the upkeep of Unity Cemetery will be a massive undertaking and that the municipality is the only one capable of maintaining Unity Cemetery once the burial ground is cleaned up.
During the Feb. 8 council regular meeting, Knight said the municipality started focusing efforts on downtown redevelopment and improving the quality of housing in Rocky Mount, but he said the then-council kept Unity Cemetery as an item on a list of priorities.
There also are documents from the 2014-15 time period about the then-municipal staff’s findings regarding Unity Cemetery.
The findings can be viewed with the online version of this story at www.rockymounttelegram.com.