Church to clean up, seek historic registration for cemetery with historic resident

Published 12:08 am Tuesday, March 14, 2023

SPENCER — When it comes to historic preservation, cemeteries may not be the first thing that springs to mind, but a cemetery in town that belonged to the New Hope AME Zion Church has a congregation and a community fighting to both restore the cemetery and garner historic site designation.

The cemetery itself dates back to the 1880s and is on the site of the original New Hope AME Zion Church, which relocated to Long Street in the 1920s following a fire.

Buried in the cemetery, among numerous unmarked graves, is George Clement, the first black doctor in Rowan County (1896), and his wife Sarah Parker Clement.

Vivian Norman is one of the congregants leading the charge to clean up the cemetery, then bring in ground-penetrating radar to determine burial sites so they can be marked.

“We won’t know who the people are, but we want them to be marked so we know there are people there who need to be memorialized, regardless,” she said.

The church is hoping to target grant funds to help with what is expected to be a two-phase project.

The first phase, said Norman, will involve clearing the debris on the property, including a number of trees, installing some fencing and a sign. The radar would come next, and then walkways, tables and benches.

“Our hope is to make it a place where people can come and read about the history of the cemetery, Dr. Clement, and our church,” Norman said. “And we hope it can become a place of peace and reflection.”

The church has held fundraisers on its own, but knows grant funds are needed for the size of the project. They have had the property surveyed to be sure they are following the property lines.

James Williams, a photographer and cyclist, said he has ridden his bike by the cemetery “500 times and never realized it was a cemetery,” but he had been working on a project at Waterworks on sacred spaces, and one afternoon the cemetery had been recently cleaned and he spotted a headstone. “I wandered in, and of course it was all overgrown and trees had fallen, but I could see some of the markers, including the one for Dr. Clement. And every one of the people buried there has a story.”

Williams reached out to the church to see if they would be interested in preservation, discovering they were already working on it, so he joined in.

And he is not alone.

Every year for the past three years, Spencer holds a clean-up day called “Spencer Cares.” Public Works employees are joined by community volunteers, and not only do they help cleanup the community, but they help residents who might not otherwise be able to do so get large pieces to the curb for pickup. Mayor Jonathan Williams said this year, the Board of Aldermen had talked about finding a local project that volunteers could get behind.

“The was a perfect match,” he said. According to information provided by the town, on Saturday March 25, at 8:30 a.m., volunteers will assemble at Oakdale Baptist Church (200 Charles St.) and walk to the cemetery. “Together, volunteers and town staff will clear out the branches, small trees, and vegetation that has overgrown the cemetery until approximately 1 p.m.” The town is providing lunch for workers from Hendrix Barbecue, all volunteers must sign a waiver, and the rain date if needed is April 1.

“This property also runs along our proposed greenway sight, our bike path, so this could be a natural fit,” he said.

Williams agreed. “As it will sit immediately adjacent to the planned greenway trail, it should provide a quiet place for Spencer residents to stop by for a pensive moment to consider man’s place on this planet and specifically how the roles of each individual buried there played out,” he said.

The congregation has reached out to the Historic Preservation Foundation of North Carolina, Inc. in Raleigh, said Norman, in the hopes that they can get proper historic site designation and signs.