A little rain doesn’t stop Spencer cemetery cleanup

Published 12:05 am Tuesday, March 28, 2023

SPENCER — A cemetery on Long Ferry Road that dates back to the 1880s had become so overgrown that not everyone knew it was hidden among the trees. The cemetery got a bit of a facelift Saturday, in spite of an off-and-on rain.

The old cemetery, at the intersection of Salisbury Avenue and Long Ferry Road, across the street from Hendrix, belongs to the New Hope AME Zion Church, which rebuilt their sanctuary on Long Street in East Spencer following a fire in the 1920s.

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.

The clean-up project of the cemetery was adopted this year by the town of Spencer for its annual Spencer Cares clean up day, and Saturday morning, folks were showing up and working in spite of gray skies and occasional rain.

“I’m just so pleased to see people have still come out to help,” said Vivian Norman, one of the church members leading the charge not only to clean up the cemetery, but to get it designated as a historic site. The ultimate goal, she said, is to have historical marker signs, tables and chairs, and provide a place for people to read about the history of the site, and have some time for peaceful contemplation.

And the people who showed up to help with the cleanup included Mayor Jonathan Williams and his family, Town Manager Peter Franzese, Fire Chief Michael Lanning and members of his department and the public works department, along with residents from around the community.

Steve Roberson, who has lived in Spencer for four years after moving south from Chicago, was one of those on hand to help. Roberson used to run a tree service business, and so he was delighted to be able to throw his expertise into the cleanup.

And William Robinson, who has lived in town since 1999, said he just “happened to stumble on the cleanup” Saturday morning when he stopped to inquire about some tires next door.

“I asked what the activity was, because I saw all the people out here. I didn’t see the headstones at first, but then I realized, ‘oh wow, that’s a cemetery,'” he said. “Not only did I not realize it was a cemetery, but a Black cemetery. There’s some history right there.”

Holding on to that history is a big part of the church’s goal, and at some point, there is a plan to bring in ground radar that can help determine burial sites for marking.

Because the forecast was for rain until about midday, Franzese said he considered for a moment postponing the event until the rain date, April 1. But that day’s forecast is more of the same, so “I just thought, let’s just delay for a few minutes, give the skies a chance to clear, and give it a shot.” And while a few drops did fall here and there, it did not stop the work of clearing vines, branches, undergrowth, old leaves and even a tree or two.

A woman driving by stopped and rolled her window down to ask if the lot was being cleared for houses. When she was informed there was a cemetery being cleaned, she parked her car at Hendrix and came to help.

“I was on my way to the garden shop for potting soil, so why not do a little gardening for the church first,” said Nan Wright, pulling a pair of garden gloves from her back seat.

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. Williams has said the town is firmly behind the church’s efforts to preserve a bit of history.