Special Report: Uncovering Asheville's buried past

North Carolina's oldest public African-American cemetery sits in Asheville's Kenilworth neighborhood. The South Asheville Cemetery is tucked behind St. John A Baptist Church. People have been working there to make sure its history isn't hidden. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- North Carolina's oldest public African-American cemetery sits in Asheville's Kenilworth neighborhood. The South Asheville Cemetery is tucked behind St. John A Baptist Church. People have been working there to make sure its history isn't hidden.

That history includes slavery in the mountains.

Cemeteries are places to say goodbye and hello. Warren Wilson Professor Jeff Keith comes to pay respect to people he doesn't know. For seven years he's been helping to clean up the cemetery. Others have been at it even longer.

They know the land well, but not the buried.

"Where people have decomposed, the land is really uneven," Keith pointed out.

News 13 watched on a Saturday afternoon as a group of six people raked leaves. None of them knew who they were helping because the cemetery has about 90 headstones and 2,000 people.

"That's an astonishing discrepancy that really speaks to inequalities," Keith, the Warren Wilson global studies chair, said.

The unmarked graves include slaves and other African-Americans who couldn't get a headstone. The cemetery closed in the '40s, and turned into a forest. The overgrowth in the middle of Asheville hid its history.

"I'm beginning to see it like I once saw it when I was growing up," George Gibson said, who grew up near the cemetery.

He started the clean up in the '80s. He thought it would take a month.

"They had to actually work for two years, I believe, before they even found George Avery's grave," Keith said.

George Avery is the only known slave with a headstone. Late in the Civil War, he joined the Union Army, which his grave marks. He returned to take care of the cemetery. The records of who is buried there passed with him.

As a kid, Gibson looked up to Avery. Gibson is 88 now and blind, but he appreciates the vision others have for this place.

"I don't have words to describe that," Gibson.

Keith shoulders the job of introducing this history to his students. Three were on hand on a Saturday morning raking leaves.

"Actually coming out here and doing the work it kind of puts it into perspective. This all happened right here in Asheville," Aspen Reynolds, a Warren Wilson freshman, said.

Keith makes sure the story of the people buried at South Asheville Cemetery lives on. Before Keith got involved, folks from Warren Wilson, UNC-Asheville and the Cemetery Association had been working on the clean up. They are always looking for help.

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