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Efforts to restore a neglected Charlotte cemetery prove it's neither gone nor forgotten

76-year-old Joe Ford wants to see Cedar Grove restored so he can bring flowers to his father's grave.
Sarah Delia
76-year-old Joe Ford wants to see Cedar Grove restored so he can bring flowers to his father's grave.

Imagine going to visit your loved one’s final resting place and not knowing where to lay flowers. Imagine not feeling comfortable walking the grounds because of the large hidden roots you could easily trip on and the piles of trash scattered throughout the property. Imagine not being able to find your loved one’s headstone because it had cracked and fallen over or was covered by debris.

That’s what 76-year-old Joe Ford experiences when he goes to visit his father’s grave at Cedar Grove Cemetery in Charlotte, located on Hildebrand Street off of Beatties Ford Road. The best he can do is stand in the general area where he thinks his father, John Ford, was laid to rest in 1963 after he died of a heart attack.

"Oh, it was a beautiful cemetery when he was buried here," Ford said. "But it would be very difficult for me to pick out the site, you know, unless we could find some type of marker."

There’s easily spotted evidence of people using Cedar Grove as a dumping ground or even a place to stay. Empty beer bottles and shiny food wrappers litter the property. Toilet paper — used — is also present.

Ford was a teenager when his father died. He wants to help any efforts to restore the property, but he’s not sure who he’d need to ask to get started.

"The main thing is finding the owner, you know, and getting his permission," Ford said.

The last known owner of Cedar Grove is buried near the front of the cemetery. Willie Griffin, the staff historian for the Levine Museum of the New South, stood near thetombstone recently. John Davidson, who was Black, bought the cemetery in 1955. He renamed it to Cedar Hill Cemetery, but the name apparently didn’t stick, and in later years, people reverted to calling it Cedar Grove.

Davidson operated a funeral home in Charlotte. He died in 1972.

"People have voiced their concern about the state of the cemetery," Griffin said. "Each time, there may have been some major efforts to clean up, but each time it has fallen back to sort of dilapidated state that it’s in."

And it’s a very sad state. Ivy wraps tentacle-like arms around headstones, eventually covering them or pulling them to the ground. One veteran’s headstone has partially sunk into the dirt and is tilted to the side. One flat rectangular memorial that simply reads “MOTHER” is covered by leaves and is easily stepped on.

Griffin stood in front of one of the more elaborate and well-maintained headstones in the cemetery, belonging to Bishop Robert Blair Bruce, who was a high-ranking official in the AME Zion church, and according to reports was a presiding elder in Mecklenburg County.

"African American history in the city it's often overlooked and it falls into a state where it is unnoticed and it's sort of everything grows up around it," Griffin said. "And we forget about the efforts that African Americans have made to try to build communities."

When Davidson died, so did the care for the cemetery.

Burials continued at Cedar Grove at least through the early 1990s. But it’s hard to say in the cemetery’s current state to say how many people are buried there or when the last person was laid to rest. Every corner you turn, a family plot is discovered. Pull back a branch, there’s another grave. Plus, when Davidson bought the cemetery in 1955, it was already functioning as one. It’s unclear how many people were buried there when he bought the land.

So who is responsible for the upkeep of this cemetery and why has it fallen into such disrepair? It’s a question many journalists have tried to answer over the years.

In 1982, a reporter named Osker Spicer of the Charlotte News tracked down Davidson’s two daughters, who lived out of state. Spicer wrote he found documents that said the property had been turned over to the women, but both denied it. One hung up on him and the other said the city of Charlotte was responsible.

According to Spicer’s article, the city at the time said it was not responsible for keeping private property clean.

In 2022, that's what the city is still saying, although now with an asterisk attached to that sentiment. There’s been a clear shift in tone. A representative from the city told WFAE it is interested in restoring Cedar Grove cemetery and even committed to doing a survey to help define the cemetery’s legal boundaries. But Cedar Grove remains a complicated oddity because it was privately owned. Both of Davidson’s daughters have died, neither had known children, so there is no apparent heir.

Melissa Timo, the historic cemetery specialist for the North Carolina Office of State Archeology, says places like Cedar Grove often fall through the cracks "because they were a private family cemetery on private property and the laws are built to cope with another entity assuming responsibility for that place at this time."

Timo says there are state laws in place to protect such properties. But at the local level, details about what should be done are murky. One option she says is for the cemetery to evolve.

"Just because it's a cemetery, it doesn't have to look like a specific thing," Timo said. "Those sort of more loose but still respectful ideas about what a cemetery could be can be less physically or financially taxing on people but still allow it to look like this isn't just an abandoned lot."

For example, turning Cedar Grove into a small park that has historical signage about the people buried there. Making it a space not just for families to come and honor their loved ones but creating an opportunity for the public to learn about its history.

But that often means neighborhood groups, schools or other service organizations donating a lot of time to organize regular cleanups.

Kevin Donaldson, a graduate student at UNC Charlotte, says he's ready to do that work.

"You can't help it when you come out here, when you visit and you see the decline that it's in, it's just sad," he said. "And it just makes you want to get out here on the weekends with your clippers and some trash bags and clean it up."

Donaldson has been working withGriffin, and they've been uncovering the history of Cedar Grove and trying to preserve it.

Step one is to take down the arch-nemesis of any cemetery — overgrown trees. Donaldson says there are more than 90 trees that should be cleared, a process that is underway.

"This is like a museum to me," Donaldson said. "Just because it's a cemetery doesn't mean that it doesn't hold just as much great history. The people who are buried here hold so much great history about the city of Charlotte that we will lose if this place continues to fall into decline."

Donaldson is holding a cleanup Jan. 30 and says he’s contacted community members about forming a board to oversee the upkeep of Cedar Grove. One option could be the formation of an association that works with the city. In the past when Cedar Grove has received media attention, there’s been a public outcry and a clean-up here or there. The goal this time is to make sure the maintenance is ongoing.

Donaldson also created a website called savecedargrove.org, where he hopes to connect with families who are searching for ways to preserve and restore the cemetery. Connecting with these families is key if Cedar Grove cemetery hopes to live on.

Ford whose father was buried at Cedar Grove some 60 years ago, agrees.

"Because my father was a great father, we were close," Ford said. "I sure would like to find out where his grave (is) so I can start visiting and bring flowers, and it would mean world to my family."

And while it would be a way for everyone to see that although people interred at Cedar Grove Cemetery may be gone, they’re not forgotten.

Special thanks to the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room for archival access and help with fact-checking.

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Sarah Delia is a Senior Producer for Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins. Sarah joined the WFAE news team in 2014. An Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist, Sarah has lived and told stories from Maine, New York, Indiana, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina. Sarah received her B.A. in English and Art history from James Madison University, where she began her broadcast career at college radio station WXJM. Sarah has interned and worked at NPR in Washington DC, interned and freelanced for WNYC, and attended the Salt Institute for Radio Documentary Studies.