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Supporters of Happy Hill Cemetery push ahead with their efforts to maintain the burial ground
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Supporters of Happy Hill Cemetery push ahead with their efforts to maintain the burial ground

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Supporters of the Happy Hill Cemetery say they are pushing ahead with their efforts to maintain the nearly century-old site.

Rising Ebenezer Baptist Church is helping preserve Happy Hill Cemetery, which has 113 graves on its 2-acre site. Researchers at Wake Forest University School of Law Community Law and Business Clinic discovered in past years that the church owned a section of the cemetery.

Willie Williams of Winston-Salem, a church member, routinely cuts the grass at the cemetery, Williams said.

“I do it according to the weather,” Williams said.

Williams has been cutting the grass at the cemetery for about 15 years, he said.

The cemetery’s address is 888 Willow St. The site is next to the intersection of Pitts and Willow streets. The church is nearby at 900 Free St.

On a recent Saturday, Maurice Pitts Johnson of Winston-Salem and three volunteers removed debris from the cemetery amid the steady noise of traffic from nearby U.S. 52.

“I’ve been working at this for a long time,” Johnson said.

Johnson also praised Williams’s work at the cemetery.

“He keeps it looking nice,” Johnson said. “It is one of our historical sites that needs to be care for and preserved.”

Tim Byers and David Gall removed debris, which was mostly fallen tree limbs and weeds, from the cemetery that day.

Byers, who recently retired as a city employee with 31 years of experience, said he wanted to help maintain the cemetery partly because his grandfather, Amos Byers, a Happy Hill resident, was the cemetery’s primary gravedigger.

“Once I retired, I decided to come back and help out,” Tim Byers said.

Gall said he had another reason to keep working at the site.

“Maurice asked me for help 13 years ago, and I am still doing it,” Gall said.

Johnson, 87, said she is motivated to care for the cemetery because her grandparents, Columbus Christopher Pitts and Alice Simmons Pitts, are buried there.

Columbus Pitts, who died in 1925, was among the first landowners in the Happy Hill neighborhood, his granddaughter said.

“My father was proud about that,” Johnson said.

Walter Pitts, Johnson’s father, first showed the cemetery to his daughter when she was a teenager, she said.

“I went away for school for nine years,” Johnson said. “When I came back, it was so overgrown that I had a hard time finding it.”

Over the past decade, Johnson and a group of volunteers cleaned up the cemetery on the second and fourth Saturdays of every month, she said.

During that time, Johnson shared the cemetery’s history with those volunteers, she said.

Some of the earliest graves belong to two people who were born in 1865, Johnson said. Other graves belong to people who born prior to 1900.

The cemetery is part of the Happy Hill community, Winston-Salem’s oldest African-American neighborhood.

Amatullah Salem, the president of the Happy Hill Neighborhood Association, said that her organization is concerned about preserving the cemetery’s history.

The Moravians first carved the land of what is now Happy Hill out of the wilderness in the 1760s when they first cleared the land for the 3,000-acre tract for the town of Salem. They established a 300-acre farm for raising Salem’s produce, but the farm was unsuccessful.

In 1815, the Moravian Church, which governed Salem, rented it to Dr. Frederich Schumann, who was going to practice medicine in the town of Salem. He had first planned to move to Salem from Bethania and felt he needed to bring an enslaved person, Celia, and her four children to care for his sick wife and two sons.

The church elders didn’t want enslaved people in town, so the doctor proposed leasing the farm. The church agreed and built him a farmhouse. Schumann moved in with his family and the enslaved family in 1816. Eventually, the Moravian Church moved enslaved people there, too, and the area became known as the Slave Quarter.

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About 1834, Schumann started to negotiate with the town to buy the farm. They negotiated for about two years but couldn’t reach an agreement. The elders told him that his lease was up and asked him to get rid of his enslaved people and leave. He freed 17 people in 1836 and sent them to Liberia.

Liberia in West Africa started as a settlement of the American Colonization Society. The society believed Blacks would fare better in Africa than America.

After the Civil War and the emancipation of enslaved people in Salem, many white residents didn’t want to live with or near freed Blacks, according to the Forsyth County Historic Resources Commission.

Town officials encouraged Black residents to move across Salem Creek to the site of the former Schumann plantation. From there, Happy Hill was born. The Moravian Church wanted the area to be called Liberia; residents, though, called it Happy Hill and that name prevailed, according to researchers at Old Salem.

By the late 1920s, Black families from rural areas moved into the Happy Hill neighborhood, taking advantage of Winston-Salem’s employment opportunities, according to the neighborhood’s history.

Many of its residents worked at Salem College as maids, cooks, janitors and gardeners. Others worked at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and the city’s other tobacco factories. The area was also the place where Blacks could buy land.

“It was inevitable that the residents would need a resting place as they lost loved ones, including many still-born infants, and babies that often died days after birth,” according to the history.

The Happy Hill Cemetery was established by several churches, and church trustees sold graves for $2.50 each, the site’s historical account says.

Burials in the Happy Hill Cemetery took place throughout the neighborhood’s history, Johnson said. The last burial happened in the 1960s.

During the construction of U.S. 52, the N.C. State Highway Commission moved 200 graves from the Happy Hill Cemetery to be reinterred in December 1968 at the Nat Watkins Cemetery in Walkertown.

The state highway commission, which is now the N.C. Department of Transportation, bought the plots in the Watkins cemetery, which is a privately owned African-American site off Pine Road, Johnson said.

That site is also located behind Oak Grove Baptist Church in Walkertown, Johnson said.

The cemetery also endured the destruction of some its headstones in 2011 when a crew using heavy equipment mistakenly knocked over headstones as their operators was clearing away brush and debris in the cemetery, Johnson said.

That happened many years after Happy Hill had undergone a major transformation in the 1950s when the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem built the city’s first public-housing development, Happy Hill Gardens.

HAWS officials wanted to help maintain the cemetery and allowed their crews to use the heavy equipment, Johnson said.

“Some headstones were mashed into the ground,” Johnson said. “Some headstones were broken.

“I don’t think it was intentional,” Johnson said.

HAWS never restored the damage headstones, and some fallen headstones remain at the cemetery, Johnson said.

HAWS doesn’t maintain records on specific projects involving HAWS equipment, and the agency’s current policy doesn’t allow HAWS’s staff, equipment or money to be used on sites, such as a cemetery, which HAWS doesn’t own, said Gwen Burston, HAWS’s director of public relations.

HAWS officials are not aware of any agency cleanup project at the cemetery or the damage to the headstones, Burston said.

“Certainly damage of any sort, and for whatever reason, to grave markers—especially markers of such significance as they found in the Happy Hill Cemetery—is heartbreaking, irrespective of the cause,” Burston said. “The Housing Authority will continue to support the recognition and preservation of the unique historical and cultural value of the Happy Hill community, including the cemetery.”

Martha Canipe, a member of Preservation Forsyth, said her organization wants to help preserve the cemetery as well. One of the first projects should be the restoration of the damaged headstones, she said.

Canipe visited the cemetery briefly recently before she attended a dedication ceremony for the Wade Bitting footbridge across Salem Creek

Mayor Allen Joines, members of the Winston-Salem City Council and the Bitting’s descendants participated in the ceremony.

The council voted in June to name the footbridge in Bitting’s honor in recognition of his efforts to improve the lives of residents of the Happy Hill neighborhood, where Bitting lived from 1909 until his death in 1968.

Until the 1930s, Happy Hill was an isolated neighborhood without street signs or house numbers, the city said in a statement.

Residents walked across a stone crossing in Salem Creek to collect their mail at the post office in Salem. The creek’s crossing was near the corner of Alder and Humphrey streets.

Salem Creek flowed and still flows through the area, separating Happy Hill from Old Salem, Salem Academy and College and the rest of the city.

After a female resident of Happy Hill fell and broke her ankle on the stone crossing, Bitting persuaded the city to build a foot bridge across the creek.

Happy Hill Reunions over the Years- A look back at some of the community reunions in the Happy Hill neighborhood, Winston-Salem's oldest black community.

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