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Nonprofit works to protect rediscovered Black and Native American burial sites

The nonprofit, "Indigenous Memories," is working to preserve sites like this previously-unknown cemetery, with between 50 to 75 people buried in it. The graves are marked by simple stones and planted in a grid-like fashion, on land that used to be part of a plantation near Hillsborough, North Carolina.
Look out at this landscape – what do you see? This area has a hidden secret, a part of American history long-since forgotten, but one that is now getting renewed attention and preservation.
Burial places can be found in nearly every community in the country. There are more than 144,000 known cemeteries and graveyards in America. However, there are a number of others not found on maps and many without traditional headstones – their locations often lost to history.
On about one acre of forested land near Hillsborough, N.C., there is a burial site with at least 50 people in it. Their graves have been surveyed and marked by small flags planted in the ground. The recently-discovered site will now be preserved from development.
Posted at 10:15 AM, Feb 08, 2023

HILLSBOROUGH, N.C. — In a plot of land, near a quiet, two-lane road in North Carolina, Beverly Scarlett found a calling.

"We're right out here, tucked in the woods,” Scarlett said.

At first glance, it looks like a forest. Upon closer inspection, though, a pattern starts to emerge.

"These are headstones,” she said. “These are footstones."

It is the location of a previously-unknown cemetery, with between 50 to 75 people buried in it. The graves are marked by simple stones planted in a grid-like fashion, on land that used to be part of a plantation near Hillsborough, North Carolina.

These are enslaved people, workers of the field,” Scarlett said.

Some of them are likely related to Scarlett; her ancestors were slaves on the nearby plantation.

Scarlett, a retired judge, is one of the founders of Indigenous Memories, a nonprofit that is working to preserve unmarked burial sites like these.

"As soon as I walked here, I felt something and started crying," she said.

Jim Parsley and his brother bought this property 50 years ago but never did much with it. They decided to sell it, and that's when the property's neighbor dropped a bombshell.

"He said, 'You know that you've got a graveyard there on the property?' and my reaction was just like yours, ‘What?’ But the pattern of the depressions and the few stones that we saw made it clear that somebody had done this. This wasn't just a random thing that happened in the forest,” he said. “Total surprise; it's just not at all anything we would've anticipated."

So, Parsley turned to realtor Kim Griffin for advice.

"You know, to us, it was sacred ground because obviously it was organized at some point in history," Griffin said.

A friend told him about Indigenous Memories and they struck a deal: Parsley would donate the one-acre burial site to the nonprofit.

"It's right on the very northern edge of the property,” Parsley said. “So, it was easy to carve that off from everything else."

The story doesn't end there, though, because Beverly Scarlett isn't just related to former slaves in the area, but also to the Native Americans who lived here.

"I was in my parents' attic rummaging around, and I came across a picture of a Native American. No doubt about it; it's a Native American," she said.

The photo was of her great-grandmother Sallie Ray Harris, a family history Scarlett grew up knowing nothing about but is now featured in the family graveyard.

Scarlett, a registered member of Saponi Nation, is now also working to preserve Native American stone burial mounds also found on area properties.

"We're working on figuring out how to get that done," she said.

However, there's another twist to the story, because after Scarlett showed the burial mounds to realtor Kim Griffin, she realized something.

"I have two mounds on my property that appear to be old Indian graves," Griffin said. "I didn't have a clue until Beverly educated me."

It is an education that Beverly Scarlett hopes to share with many others, through Indigenous Memories.