Ramsey Library Special Collections

University of North Carolina at Asheville
D. Hiden Ramsey Library
Special Collections/University Archives

Oral History Register

The South Asheville Colored Cemetery, 1840-1943


"Headstone in Cemetery," [Photography by Marilyn Ferikes, 2001]

Title South Asheville Colored Cemetery Oral History
Creator Derothea Williams, Project Director for the South Asheville Colored Cemetery Project
Alt. Creator Interviewer: Lewis Armmond
African Americans -- Cemeteries
African Americans -- North Carolina -- Social Life And Customs
:Undertakers ; churches
Description Interviews with elderly African American natives of Asheville, NC, give a vivid record of rites of death and burial for black residents of Asheville before 1940.

Collection includes: Interviews with nine African American residents of Asheville, NC with knowledge of persons buried in the South Asheville Colored Cemetery ; A partial listing from the Buncombe County Death Registry of persons buried in South Asheville Colored Cemetery ; A list of artifacts related to burials in the cemetery and sources for further information about the cemetery ; An article: "The South Asheville Colored Cemetery 1840-1943," by Wilburn Hayden, Jr.

Publisher D. H. Ramsey Library Special Collections, University of North Carolina at Asheville, NC, 28804
Contributor Wilburn Hayden, Jr.
Date Electronic Record Issued: 2001-07-30
Type Sound ; Text
Format one folder containing two 3.5" floppy disks ; two 60-minute audio cassettes and five 60-minute micro-cassettes ; partial transcripts of interviews ; and three copies of document by Wilburn Hayden, Jr., "The South Asheville Colored Cemetery 1840-1943" 
Identifier http://toto.lib.unca.edu/findingaids/oralhistory/SACC/colored_cemetery.html
Source South Asheville Colored Cemetery Oral History Collection, D.H. Ramsey Library Special Collections, University of North Carolina at Asheville 28804
Language English
Relation Heritage of Black Highlanders Collection, Special Collections, UNC Asheville ; Newton Academy Cemetery, Special Collections, UNC Asheville ;
Coverage c1900's - 1940 ; Asheville, NC
Rights Restricted collection: ;  Any display, publication, or public use must credit the D.H. Ramsey Library Special Collections, University of North Carolina at Asheville. Copyright retained by the authors of certain items in the collection, or their descendents, as stipulated by United States copyright law.
Acquisition Donor number: 138 ;  Date of acquisition: 1990-05-02
Processed By Southern Highlands Research Center staff , 1990 ;  revised finding aid completed by Betsy Murray, 2001-05
Interview Date 1989-08
List of Names Interviews Collected by Dee [Derothea] Williams:
Reverend Benjamin F. Brewer August 19,1989 (combined with Rosa Gordon Brewer)
Ms. Rosa Gordon Brewer, August 19, 1989 (combined with Benjamin F. Brewer)
Ms. Annie Mae Bolden, August 15,1989
Ms. Ethel Burgan, August 29, 1989
Ms. Saint Ola Mapp, August 14, 1989
Ms. Genevieve Pain Williams, August 7, 1989

Interviews Collected by Lewis Armmond:
Mr. George Gibson, August 2, 1989
Mr. Forest Hardy, August 16, 1989

Notes to Records Search
by Dee Williams
Project Director


The South Asheville Colored Cemetery Project was conducted over a three-month period during the summer of 1989.

The Death Register of Buncombe County was the primary tool used to find many of the names on the tombstones in the South Asheville Colored Cemetery. The term of the project was too short (three months) to allow for an exhaustive search of all names. The information we were able to find about the personal histories, gathered from written sources and from oral interviews, told us some things of interest about  the buried individuals.

Note that in the Registry, some last names were spelled in a variety of ways. Also, over the years, some of the spellings have been changed by descendants, i.e. "Payne", "Pain" or "Paine."

It would appear that many persons, particularly those who settled the South Asheville Community were related. There is evidence that there were large family clans who were buried in the cemetery. The descendants who live nearby, today, say that they are related thusly: the Pattons to the Millers, the Millers to the Hemphills, the Hemphills to the Averys, the Averys to the Williams, the Williams to the Harpers, and the Harpers to the Paynes.

Illegitimacy appeared to be widespread, or, perhaps, information about black deaths was recorded haphazardly, or many blacks who were born into slavery did not know who their fathers were.

The writer saw only one instance supported by written documentation, of a burial in the South Asheville Colored Cemetery. That was the funeral program of David B. Shields, the father of Mrs. Saint Ola Mapp of Asheville.

Mr. Bowditch, a member of the St. John A. Baptist Church, and a lifelong resident of the Haw Creek community told the writer that he had a church Bible which recorded the deaths of members and that there was some reference to burials in the cemetery.

Another source of gathering information or personal histories about some of the persons interred there would be the Marriage Bonds in the Registry. One notable thing which I picked up is that many women were buried under their maiden names. One instance is Delia Miller. Delia was married to Moses Lord, but never used his name. We did find that she had several infants to die, as recorded in the Buncombe County Registry.

I also searched the 1870 [Asheville] City Directory. I found many instances of whites and blacks living in the same households, which led me to think that even though manumission occurred in 1863, the relationship of servant and master perpetuated itself in Asheville for an extended period.

We did a preliminary search of the Register of Deeds Office of Buncombe County, and many persons whose names came up in the oral history, or appeared on the tombstones were among the largest landowners.

In the 1938 compilation of the names of persons buried in the Newton Academy Cemetery, which is the white companion cemetery to South Asheville, many similar last names occur. The Newton Academy Cemetery list was obtained from the NC Department of Archives and History in Raleigh.

Most of the black mortuaries which exist today were successors of earlier ones that performed many of the burials in South Asheville, but most have no records of these burials.

"Rites of Death and Burial of Blacks in Appalachia."
The South Asheville Colored Cemetery 1840-1943

by Wilburn Hayden, Jr.
Head and Associate Professor, Department of Social Work and Sociology,
Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, NC, March, 1990
[Article appeared in the 1991 Winter Issue of  Appalachian Heritage magazine and is reproduced here with permission of both Dr. Hayden and the editor of Appalachian Heritage magazine.]

Marilyn Ferikes, 2001

The oral histories collected by Dee Williams, Project Director for the South Asheville Cemetery Oral History Project, provides a snapshot of the early rites of death and burial of Asheville's black population. Like any oral history, the accounts of earlier times are what is remembered from the lives of the people giving the interviews. Since the people interviewed were in their 80's and 90's, our picture is primarily from the turn of the century to the present. Many would recall relatives buried before the 1900's but were unable to recall conditions or situations. So, what we have is a snapshot of the last fifty or so years of the life of the Asheville Colored Cemetery.

In 1840, Asheville was a small town with regulations regarding where burials took place. Perhaps this was a problem for the slave masters: where does one bury slaves? It was unacceptable for slaves to be buried in the white cemeteries of the day. The McDowell family of Asheville provided land in the area we now call South Asheville black community. This land became the burial ground for Asheville black slaves. George Avery, one of the McDowell family's slaves, was responsible for the care of the cemetery. After the war and until his death, he remained as the cemetery caretaker.

With the ending of slavery, the black church emerged as the central social institution for black people. The churches, through the ministers, were the voice to the white society, educational opportunities, community bonds, social status, and on and on. Much like the white churches of Appalachia, the black churches emerged after slavery with land adjacent to the church for a cemetery. This was the pattern in Haywood, Jackson, and other counties in the mountains where blacks were found. From 1840, Asheville had a common cemetery which predated the establishment of the black churches. Though is not clear when the Burial Association/ Cemetery Board was founded jointly by St. John A. Baptist Church and St. Mark AME Church, the Asheville Colored Cemetery became the place for burying members of the two churches as well as other black residents of South Asheville.

St. John A. Baptist Church
Marilyn Ferikes, 2001

"When my family came to Asheville in 1922 we joined the St. John A. Baptist Church … I found that there was already what was called the Burial Association/Cemetery Board which was staffed by members from the St. John A. and St. Mark Church … I remember Mr. John Ragsdale was a member of the Board … both Churches took care of the Cemetery … and as far as I knew both Churches owned the land that the Churches and Cemetery was on … I don't know how they came to own it …"
Rev. Benjamin F. Brewer
August 19, 1989

"If you or your family member were not a member of either St. John A. or St. Mark, then there was a burial fee of between $75 and $85 to be paid … there was also a fee of $15 to be paid to the gravedigger … in those days that was considered a lot of money, and some families would dig their own family member's grave to save money. … the burial fee at South Asheville was low compared to most burial grounds who were charging $115 and higher. The arrangements for burial were made between the members of the Cemetery Board Committee and the undertakers. One of the undertakers would notify the Committee that they had a body and that the family requested burial at the South Asheville Cemetery ... the Committee would review the request and grant permission for the burial."
Rev. Benjamin F. Brewer
August 19, 1989

During the second or third decade blacks were allowed burial in a portion of city owned Riverside Cemetery. Individuals not having burial insurance or the fees for the South Asheville Cemetery were buried in Riverside Cemetery.

"Now back then Riverside was the only white cemetery that would bury blacks … but they put all the blacks down on the back side of the cemetery."
Ms. Annie Mae Bolden
August 15, 1989

Most of the cemetery was made up of family plots.
Families would use small fences, vegetation or markers to distinguish their plots.

" … it was a beautiful headstone with praying hands … there used to be three headstones out there … we had a plot … it was fenced in at one time … my grandmother had a headstone, my aunt Delia had a headstone and there was one headstone for the three black uncles … I don't know why they had one headstone for all three of them … they didn't all die at the same time."
Ms. Annie Mae Bolden
August 15, 1989

Often at the time of burial the family would have very little or no money for a tombstone. A metal marker or some land mark (i.e. a large tree, a particular bush, etc.) was used until a stone could be purchased. This may account for tombstones bearing the names of two or more people buried years apart.

Marilyn Ferikes, 2001

Marilyn Ferikes, 2001

"Well, you could tell that the cemetery was not well kept up then, but I imagine that my mother chose this cemetery … it was through Mr. Allen, because it was a cheaper place to be buried …and I remember that he was buried near the largest tree out there because we didn't have a marker and usually the cemetery directory didn't have a little marker like they do now where when you go back and find out where he was buried … but it was a nice cemetery, but it was a cheaper place, and I imagine it was because it hadn't been kept up."
Ms. Saint Ola Mapp, August 14, 1989

"It was a community effort … yes, I believe the cleaning was done twice a year … once in the spring and once in the fall … people would hear of it in the churches and they would go out there and take their dinner and clean up, sometimes it would take a couple of days … yes, the whole community helped …"
Ms. Ethel Burgan, August 29, 1989

Marilyn Ferikes, 2001

The upkeep was a community effort with the primary responsibility belonging to the families and friend of the deceased. The gravediggers would do minor maintenance to the common areas of the cemetery. During church service, twice a year, the black churches would announce a date for community clean up. The men would clean and women would prepare food and drinks. These two events were major community activities and served to renew community ties and bonds.

Marilyn Ferikes, 2001

"The up-keep of the cemetery was a community effort mostly … on any given Sunday one of the Deacons of our church, St. John A., would make an announcement in church that the cemetery grounds were in need of a good cleaning and give the day and date set aside for everyone who could or would be at the cemetery for a community cleaning effort … and I imagine that someone at St. Mark would have made the same announcement because, on that date announced members of both churches would come together at the cemetery and the men would clean the cemetery grounds while the women would prepare food and drink … it was an all day project, however, on an everyday basis the gravediggers, one of which was my father, the Reverend Gordon, kept the cemetery grounds pretty nice … and then the families of the deceased buried there kept up their own family plot also … I remember one family, the Millers, had planted a rose bush around the grave of Mrs. Miller, and they kept it up … it was absolutely beautiful."
Rev. Benjamin F. Brewer,
May 19, 1989

The actual burial ritual and ceremony was much like today. The undertaker would take complete control of the arrangements: giving notice of need for burial space; securing permission for non church members; body preparation; and paying for the coffins, preacher, and gravedigger. The families would pay the undertaker from the very popular burial insurance of the day or from their own monies.

Each family was responsible for dressing the body. Much effort was made to have garments, favorite jewelry and personal articles. Individuals would keep in a closet or a drawer a suit, gown or special clothing in which they wanted to be buried. The families and friend wanted to have the deceased presented with their best in this final resting place.

"Well, I'll tell you how it was as a rule … then you didn’t go to the store and buy anything … when I was a little girl, I had to give a speech in school and I came home to change clothes, but I couldn't find a clean slip, so I went into my mother's bureau and got out this pretty shimmie … I know you don't know what a shimmie is (laughs); it's like a bra and slip made together …so I pinned it up to fit me, put on my clothes and went and gave my speech.  So when my mother got home she said, 'Child, where did you get that shimmie from?' And I said, 'Mama, I needed a clean slip and couldn't find one so I got this one out of your bureau drawer.' And she said, 'Child, I was saving that to be buried in.' … So you see … people used to save something they considered special from among their own things to be buried in … people don't do that any more."
Ms. Ethel Burgan, August 29, 1989

The families would keep the body in their homes until the funeral date. It would be viewed by all and taken to the church for the service. The final service at the grave site would be brief. Favorite articles or antique vases would be laid on the grave as a final monument to the departed.

Estimates are two to four thousand blacks are buried in he cemetery. The Asheville Colored Cemetery was at the core of the black community. It belonged to the black community and was open to all blacks until the city fathers saw a need to bring to a close the Asheville Colored Cemetery in 1943; four years later the McDowell family gave the deed to the City of Asheville. In 1983, the South Asheville Cemetery Association was formed to protect and preserve the physical property of the cemetery. The Association currently has the property deed.

Marilyn Ferikes, 2001

Survey of Artifacts and Information in Public Registries about the South Asheville Colored Cemetery

*Note:  Buncombe County Records and the Death Register, Buncombe County have good resources for finding information regarding families and individuals in this cemetery and others.

  1. A Whole Lot of Buncombe. May 1981. Vol. II, #4, page 81-56. List of tombstones in South Asheville Colored Cemetery on April 21, 1981 by Frances McDowell, Viola Stevens, Barbara Buchanan, and John Baxter.
  2. Buncombe County Register of Deeds. DB 77, P. 238. W.W. McDowell and wife to George Avery. Conveyance of remaining acreage for South Asheville Colored Cemetery.
  3. "List of Tombstones in South Asheville Cemetery" by Dee Williams. Compiled September 1989.
  4. Photograph or Daguerreotype of Delia Miller who was interred in South Asheville Cemetery. Possessed by Mrs. Annie M. Bolden of Asheville, niece of Delia and daughter and granddaughter of J. V. Miller and Louise Miller, respectively.
  5. Funeral program for David DeShields who was interred in South Asheville Cemetery on 3/15/37. Possessed by daughter, Mrs. Saint Ola Mapp of Asheville.
  6. Family bible which lists ten Burgan family members who are interred in the South Asheville Cemetery. Possessed by Mrs. Ethel Burgan of Asheville.
  7. 1870 Census of Asheville. Microfilm in Pack Memorial Library, the North Carolina Collection. Jesse Clayton, one of the early black settlers and landowners of the community cited as being the 15 year old son of Dick Clayton. Jesse Clayton interred in South Asheville Cemetery.
  8. Photograph of Robert C. Watkins, the last known burial in South Asheville Cemetery. Possessed by Mrs. Eleanor Williams of Asheville.
  9. Asheville Citizen Times newspaper in "Neighbors South." Wednesday, Sept. 4, 1985. Article, "Old Cemetery Served Early Black Community" by Maggie Lauterer.
  10. The Native Stone, Nov. 7, 1985, p. 2. Article, "Arrows on Target" by Dick Soesbee.
  11. The Asheville Times newspaper in articles, "Local History Obscured in Old Black Cemetery" and "Memories are Buried with History for Those Whose Loved Ones Lie Here." February 20, 1987. Both articles by Ed Brackett.
  12. Asheville Times, Aug. 9, 1989 in article "Local Group Seeks to Preserve Cemetery" by Henry Robinson. 
Email from Jesse G. Smith

In May 2011, UNC Asheville Special Collections received an email from Jesse G. Smith regarding the above article by Wilburn Hayden Jr. The following comments extracted from Mr. Smith's email have not been independently verified, but are included here for information purposes.

"I noticed that the article written by Wilburn Hayden Jr. about the Asheville Colored Cemetery had a slight error. He stated that the McDowell family donated the land originally for the cemetery. This is not entirely correct. The land was initially given for a colored cemetery by James McDowell Smith. I have written documentation of that fact. The mistake possibly comes from the fact that James Smith's daughter Sarah Lucinda married William Wallace McDowell, and the bulk of Smith's estate passed to them. The McDowell family administered the cemetery until 1943, however did not have anything to do with the original land offering. This is obvious also because William Wallace McDowell did not move to Asheville until 1845, and married Sarah in 1846. There were no McDowells in Asheville prior to 1845. James McConnell died in 1856, leaving Sarah and William the administration of his properties."

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