NEW BERN — City officials, in partnership with concerned residents, are set to place historical plaques in city cemeteries to recognize at least a dozen African Americans who were disinterred from Cedar Grove Cemetery during the early 1900s.
A public ceremony and plaque placement honoring and restoring respect for the deceased is planned for at 1 p.m. Saturday. The ceremony will begin at St. Peter’s AME Zion Church at 617 Queen St. All are welcome to attend.
In 2014, an article appeared in the New Bern Sun Journal newspaper recounting the story of several African Americans whose graves and remains were removed from Cedar Grove Cemetery in 1914 and reinterred in Greenwood Cemetery in order to make room for more whites.
The article explains one of many laws that grew out of the Jim Crow era that banned African Americans from being buried at Cedar Grove. The disinterred remains were taken to Greenwood Cemetery and buried in a mass grave near the entrance.
After the article appeared in the newspaper, a group of citizens led by Rev. Robert Johnson and Ben Watford approached city officials with their concerns. Officials then contacted Charles Ewen, director of the Department of Anthropology at East Carolina University, for assistance.
In March 2019, Ewen and a group of students from ECU’s Bioarcheology Laboratory excavated the mass grave at Greenwood. They found only a few fractured bones and the remains were significantly commingled. Watford and Johnson recommended the remains stay put at Greenwood.
Over several months, discussions continued on ways to honor, restore respect and bring dignity to the deceased, resulting in the plan to place the historical plaques, measuring 2 feet by 3 feet, to be installed near the entrances to both cemeteries. Last month, the New Bern Board of Aldermen discussed funding for the plaques and a motion for approval passed unanimously.
“I would like to thank the City of New Bern and the Parks & Recreation Department for their assistance in making this project successful,” said Watford in a statement. “The staff have shown such empathy for this situation and we are grateful for their help to bring this day forward.”
Once the church ceremony is over, temporary plaques will be placed at each cemetery site. After the unveiling ceremony at Greenwood Cemetery, all are welcome to meet at the Omega Center, 800 Cedar St., for the repast.
“This is the right thing to do to bring closure to a devastating situation,” said Johnson. “We can finally put this matter and these citizens to rest. Through this process, we become better citizens who truly care about people. We can help restore healing for those who’ve been hurt by this situation. I am so happy to be a part of this team. We are making history for New Bern and beyond.”
The final plaques are expected to be delivered and installed in mid-March.
“It is difficult to find words when a tragedy such as this occurs,” said Mayor Dana Outlaw. “What happened here out of indifference is now a place where all people can come together to mourn these New Bernians. It was our duty, as a City and a community, to make it right.”