More than 350 unmarked graves of African Americans found in North Carolina cemetery

Southeast

HIGH POINT, N.C. (WGHP) — Descendants of at least 125 families may soon be able to reflect on a past they may not have even known existed in High Point, North Carolina.

This after local historians began digging for the truth about the individuals buried in the so-called “colored section” in Oakwood’s High Point Cemetery. As a result, African Americans in the Triad and beyond are learning things from their past they had no idea about.

NewsNation affiliate WGHP first reported this story back in June when archeologists were using ground-penetrating radar to find out how many Black people are buried in that section.

Originally it was thought that there were roughly 50 unmarked graves lied in the “colored section,” but after further research, more than 350 unmarked graves were found.

A Winston-Salem man recently discovered his great-great-great grandmother was buried here.

“She was a slave for probably the first 15 years of her life. She was born in about June of 1840, and she died in October of 1917,” said Brian Bonner who discovered a family member buried in that portion of the cemetery.

Annie Pitts is Bonner’s maternal great-great-great grandma. She was buried at Oakwood Cemetery. A discovery Bonner learned of months ago through High Point historian, Phyllis Bridges, helping him connect parts of his family tree with the information he already knew.

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“She was a slave belonging to the Welch family. William Welch Jr. was the founder of High Point according to a news article that I found,” Bonner said. “He actually named the town and decided where it would be.”

At about 14-years-old, Annie Pitts had a child by one of the Welch’s.

“She had a relationship with his son, Jacob Jasper Welch. We think it was him at least. He was one of four brothers,” Bonner said.

Bonner had been searching through his genealogy for years.

“Those are some bibles that Annie owned,” Bonner explained.

Lucky for Bonner, his grandmother kept documents from Annie’s past that have helped them understand her story.

“We have some letters written by her mother to her (Annie) and some letters written from the Cox family to her kind of asking about day-to-day activities, what they were going to plant, things like that,” he said.

Bonner said the physical proof in which Annie’s mother was sold by her master was something he found in his grandmother’s basement. It was in the will of William Welch.

“This is the will,” Bonner explained.

Bonner learned Pitts was eventually freed from slavery and worked for the Cox family. She was a servant for them for the next 38 years—until her death.

As Bonner turns the pages of his family history, knowing Annie’s story has left him with a sense of pride.

“I admire your strength, being able to endure when things may not have been easy, when you feel insignificant at times,” Bonner said. 

“We have a lot of history in High Point that just hasn’t been told,” said Gwyned Davis, whose family members are also buried in the cemetery.

Davis lives in Charlotte. She said she knew she had at least 10 family members resting at Oakwood.

 “My great grandfather, Henry Clay Davis,” she said. “My great-great grandfather, Rev. Daniel Brooks was a slave.”

What she didn’t know was that there were more than 350 other black souls who were buried there with unmarked graves.

“I went, ‘Whoa, we have that many there?’”  Davis said.

She said it brings peace of mind to know others are being connected with their ancestors, but it comes with a sense of hurt.

“Most people in High Point of the other persuasion, they know where their people are and they know where they are buried, they know where they are. In our case particularly, it’s a guess,” Davis said.

She’s hoping this project encourages Black people to continue telling their stories, despite how wilted their past may be because what lives on are their legacies.

For Bonner, filling in the gaps of Pitt’s story leaves him with a sense of pride.

“It’s a sense of pride that their spirits are there kind of watching over us and seeing how we’ve come to be today,” Bonner said.

Bridges is still working to connect the roughly 125 other names she discovered during the project to present-day family members.

Historians Phyllis Bridges and Linda Willard were presented with the award of excellence by the North Carolina Society of Historians for this project. The two women are putting together a book of stories for the forgotten souls resting in Oakwood cemetery.

Bridges also received the Lifetime Achievement Award.

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