Never knowing where some of his family members were buried, Harold Isbell stood in awe and looked at the newly erected historic black cemetery grave marker scanning to find his relatives’ names.
Isbell was part of a crowd gathered on Oct. 1 at the Boone Cemetery at 614 Howard St. to witness the unveiling of a monument for the known and unknown individuals interred in the black section of the town cemetery.
While the Junaluska Heritage Association spearheaded the community-wide initiative, the project was also a collaboration among the town of Boone, Boone’s Historic Preservation Commission and Appalachian State University.
Boone’s historic black cemetery began as a burial ground for blacks enslaved by local landowner and storekeeper Jordan Councill. The black cemetery went largely unmarked and was located outside the original fence around the white portion of the town’s cemetery. Through the years, several of the few existing tombstones in the black section were moved, removed or toppled.
The granite marker lists the names of the 65 known African Americans buried in the area. It also gives mention to the approximately 100 others who are unidentified, as the marker reads “and others known only to God.”
Isbell, of Asheboro, and brother Tony Isbell, of Lenoir, drove to Boone to witness the grand unveiling. Harold Isbell said of the known relatives listed on the monument, he had two grandparents — Bettie Grimes Horton (1879-1938) and June Horton (1871-1939); and two uncles — Burl Horton (1912-1935) and Steve Horton (1897-1934).
Isbell said he may have more kinfolk on the monument he isn’t aware of, as he has both Grimes and Horton relatives. Grimes and Horton were common last names on the monument.
“It’s a blessing,” Isbell said. “I had to come to see it. It’s an honor that this has been done so that people like me, people like my children, can see where their great-grandmother is buried.”
At the event, Mayor Rennie Brantz said the development of the monument has helped to make Boone whole as a community.
“From this whole process, we’ve learned a lot more about our community, about our town,” Brantz said. “It’s helped us to deepen our identity as members of the Boone community. It enriches and expands our understanding of who we are and where we came from. We should all be proud of (this) accomplishment that unites us as citizens of Boone.”
The process of the grave marker started in 2014 when the JHA approached the Historic Preservation Commission, asking that the condition of the black cemetery be addressed. Eric Plaag, chair of the Historic Preservation Commission, aided the JHA in finding records of the African American section of the cemetery.
“Over the next several weeks, I waded through more deed records and archival sources than I can count,” Plaag said.
From his research, Plaag said he was able to find that sometime before the American Civil War, Benjamin Councill Sr. began laying out graves on this particular hillside for white members of his and other related family. It’s likely that he did the same for the people he had enslaved — setting those graves apart from those of his family, Plaag said.
“Joining the burial of those enslaved persons were three Union soldiers in April 1865,” Plaag said. “Their displacement to the east from the rest of the white bodies (is) probably a political statement on where the bodies of those who are fighting for black freedom should be put to rest.”
When the war was over, division between the two black and white burial sides continued — with those who were white buried to the west and those who were black buried to the east, Plaag said.
In time, these sections of the cemetery came to be known as the town’s cemetery and by June 1899, there were concerns that the cemetery wasn’t being properly cared for.
“The first documented reference to the black section of the cemetery as a distinct burial space, occurred in 1918 when the (Watauga) Democrat ran a short article on the passing of Beverly Williams — who was described as being buried in ‘the colored section of the cemetery,’” Plaag said.
In August 1936, the Watauga Democrat highlighted efforts by “the colored people of the community in completing two days most effective work in the beautification of their cemetery,” Plaag said. This suggested that the community regarded that section of the cemetery as being distinctly owned and maintained by the black residents, Plaag explained.
In 1950, the black section of the cemetery was overgrown once more. Twenty years later, the trustees of the Boone City Cemetery built a chain link fence around only the white section of the cemetery, Plaag said.
“But we live in a different time, and it has been my great honor to work with and on behalf of the Junaluska Heritage Association, and the citizens of Boone, to remember our history — to bring together once again the land that holds our honored dead and remove the social and racial barriers of the past,” Plaag said.
Boone Town Manager John Ward said in the 2016-17 town budget, $100,000 was appropriated for the cemetery. Over the years, the town has conducted major tree work and constructed a retaining wall along Brown Street, and the dividing fence has been removed.
“It was probably one of my most proud moments in Boone as I came up and personally got to help the crews tear down that fence,” Ward said.
Later this fall, Ward said a new aluminum fence will be erected around the entire perimeter of the Boone Cemetery.
Members of the JHA said the unveiling was special as it was also the first time they themselves had seen the monument.
Roberta Jackson with the JHA said she wanted to thank everyone who had supported the project to its finish as well as the members of the JHA for their hard work.