Places in Peril 2014: Durham’s Historic Public Cemeteries

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maplewood cemetery

Maplewood Cemetery Image from Open Durham

Durham’s Historic Public Cemeteries

Why they’re important:

For more than 140 years, many of Durham’s citizens have laid family members to rest in one of the City’s two public cemeteries. Maplewood, the older and larger of the two, dates from the 1870s. Beechwood, a historically African American burial ground opened in the 1920s.

Maplewood Cemetery covered five acres at the corner of Kent Street and Morehead Avenue when it was established in 1872. Like many post-Civil War American cities, Durham responded to a period of death and sorrow by creating a public landscape filled with beauty and solitude. The oldest section of Maplewood, characterized by narrow gravel carriageways, large shade trees, and ornate Victorian monuments, is the final resting place of those who conceived of Durham and brought industry to the town after war: Duke, Mangum, Parrish, Wright, and Carr. Mayors, legislators, soldiers, and even the City’s namesake are buried here alongside many of our own family members.

Beechwood Cemetery was established by the City during the mid-1920s near the intersection of Fayetteville Street and Cornwallis Road. Meant to replace four overfilling and neglected African American cemeteries nearby, Beechwood was built in a minimalist, modern style.  The modest grave markers list the names of those who built Durham with their hands. Those who labored in the mills and tobacco factories and who fought in the great wars overseas lie alongside esteemed African American business leaders such as John Merrick, founding partner of North Carolina Mutual, and Dr. James Shepard, founder of North Carolina Central University.

Why they’re imperiled:

Both facilities are publicly owned and operated, and remain in active use. A small staff of 13 full-time employees assumes the almost impossible task of mowing, trimming, pruning, and raking nearly 145 acres of landscape encompassing both cemeteries. In addition, the staff repairs their own equipment; tends nearly 10,000 gravesites; and handles, on average, about one new burial each day. The annual operating budget for this work is $115,000.

Deferred maintenance has taken its toll on both cemeteries but is most evident in the oldest section of Maplewood. Here, a century old network of narrow gravel paths never intended for automobiles is rutted and cratered. Walls that support gravestites have crumbled away, and others tilt perilously into ruin. Many tombstones and monuments are also leaning or broken, and several of the larger  mausoleums have been vandalized and stripped of their stain glass windows and ornate bronze doors.

In February, the City published a study assessing both facilities and identifying priority-level repairs in the interest of public safety; estimating deferred maintenance costs at more than $4 million; and recommending basic system upgrades, building renovations, and site improvements estimated at another $2 million.

What’s needed:

Preservation Durham supports immediately and fully funding the identified critical improvements. We pledge to work with the cemetery administration and staff to raise awareness about these historic cultural resources, identify potential grants and alternative funding sources, and bring together volunteers willing to help reclaim and restore these historic properties.