When Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick and De Kirkpatrick walked through the Sardis Presbyterian Church cemeteries last month, they believed that a slave cemetery had been lost to the weeds in nearby woods. That’s what Jimmie Lee remembered being told.
But they were wrong. That’s what happens when you’re researching your family’s history. Sometimes, facts conflict with lore.
David Blackley, 53, has mowed the lawn at the Sardis Cemetery since he was 13, and he became a member of the Cemetery Committee when he was 21, after college. For more than 30 years he has tended the graveyard much like a small-town high school coach tends his football field – with pride and appreciation for what it represents.
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The slave cemetery is actually on a small plot about 100 yards away, in a wooded setting alongside a Boy Scout hut. It’s pristine land, says Blackley, who with his wife, Mary Beth, owns Renfrow Hardware & General Merchandise in Matthews. It’s covered with periwinkle vines that bloom purple around Easter.
At least 67 graves have been identified, many with small fieldstone markers that are visible through the periwinkle. None are marked with names or any writing, but they represent graves of slaves and Native Americans, according to the church’s oral history, Blackley says.
He says the church left the slave cemetery, and two other cemeteries on its grounds, in their natural states, deciding that was how to best honor the dead.
Blackley also teaches Sunday school. Most every year, he takes his class on a short field trip across Sardis Road to the slave cemetery. He tells the class about how slaves came with their masters to church and were baptized and took communion. “If you don’t understand where you’re from, you really don’t understand where you’re going,” he says.
Jimmie Lee was gratified to hear the church is tending the cemetery. Its starkness and separation help tell the story of Mecklenburg County in the 1860s. Slaves weren’t buried with white church members and were not accorded names on markers.
Blackley expects to be in charge of the cemetery until he dies. “It’s a sacred site,” he says.
There are no signs to let visitors know its whereabouts, but Blackley says he will gladly tend to that, too.
“I’d be pleased to mark it,” he says. “I’ve never been asked.”