Slave cemetery at Sardis Presbyterian Church will finally get marker Saturday

David Blackley, a member of the cemetery committee at Sardis Presbyterian Church Cemetery pulls back leaves from around several small unmarked stones in the church's slave and native American cemetery on February 19, 2014.
David Blackley, a member of the cemetery committee at Sardis Presbyterian Church Cemetery pulls back leaves from around several small unmarked stones in the church's slave and native American cemetery on February 19, 2014.

At 4 p.m. Saturday, a small group of committed people, maybe 20 or so, will gather in a wooded area near Sardis Presbyterian Church to officially memorialize a cemetery where slaves and Native-Americans were buried more than 150 years ago.

No one alive remembers the names of the departed – unlike in the church’s two other cemeteries, there are no words on the small field stone markers visible through the periwinkle vines that bloom purple around Easter time every year.

But on Saturday, a small stone monument will be placed at the site that will alert passersby that the cemetery – used from 1790 until the 1860s – “is the final resting place of Afro-American slaves and Native Americans who were baptized communing members of Sardis Presbyterian Church.”

Saturday’s ceremony will not only be the culmination of the life stories of the 67 to 80 people buried there. It will also bring some closure for four others, all of whom are scheduled to speak:

▪ For Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick, it will be a long-delayed chance to help honor the lives, the contributions and the pain of his enslaved ancestors. A 1965 football star at Charlotte’s Myers Park High School, Kirkpatrick is flying in from Portland, Ore., for the ceremony.

“The emotional piece for me is that my ancestors who are responsible for me, who I am, are finally getting their just recognition for their lives and their existence,” said Kirkpatrick, who was a central figure in a lawsuit decades ago that led to the integration of the Shrine Bowl high school football game. “This goes toward my own personal and family’s personal spiritual healing around slavery.”

▪ For David Blackley, 55, the ceremony will be a fitting tribute to the souls he’s personally honored for more than 40 years by tending to their graveyard with respect – first as a teenage member of the church mowing the area and, since age 21, as a member of the Sardis Presbyterian’s Cemetery Committee.

As a Sunday school teacher, Blackley also takes young churchgoers and Boy Scouts on field trips to the cemetery, stressing that the slaves were baptized and took Communion at the church, which was started when George Washington was president.

“We’ve been wanting to do something more and this will be wonderful,” said Blackley, who added that the event is one way Sardis Presbyterian is celebrating the 225th anniversary of the church’s founding. “(The cemetery) is in a nice, peaceful setting, and it’s part of our history. And any ground that’s a cemetery should be kept sacred.”

▪ For Boy Scout Hoke Thompson, 16, the monument going up Saturday will testify to a changing Charlotte that history resides in this cemetery that he’s exploring as part of his Eagle Scout project. The cemetery is only about 20 feet away from where his Boy Scout troop meets Tuesday nights, so working on it seemed like a natural fit when he began looking for an Eagle Scout project.

In hopes of determining just how many slaves are buried on the site, Hoke has worked with Andy Bobyarchick of UNC Charlotte to scan the cemetery with a ground penetration radar device. They’ve turned up evidence suggesting that it could be the resting place of 80 or so people – about 15 more than previously thought.

And Hoke, along with other Scouts and friends, is doing the expensive and time-consuming work of clearing debris and building a battlefield fence of split rails – popular in the Civil War era – that will go around the entire perimeter.

For all the contributions of these slaves, who helped build Charlotte, Hoke said, “I think they deserve more respect and we’re doing what we can for their final resting place. ... You don’t think a lot about history in a growing city like Charlotte. But here it is, living history right beside a major road (Sardis Road) that thousands of people drive down every day.”

▪ For Katherine Hohmann, Saturday’s ceremony will offer an opportunity for the history-minded group she heads to place its first marker in Mecklenburg County. As president of the local chapter of the National Society Colonial Dames XVII Century, she had been searching for something special with which to note the national society’s 100th anniversary.

She found it when she read a 2014 article in the Observer about Kirkpatrick’s search for his ancestors’ graves at Sardis Presbyterian and Blackley’s willingness to consider having the slave cemetery marked in some way.

So her chapter – officially named for Gov. John Archdale, a long-ago colonial governor of North Carolina – purchased the marker. To come up with the proper wording for the monument that will be unveiled Saturday, Hohmann worked with Sardis Presbyterian, with her society, and with others – including a black minister, the Rev. Ed Newberry of Memorial Presbyterian in Charlotte, who offered advice.

“We are firm believers in historic preservation and are very interested in the education of our youth – we all learn from the past,” Hohmann said. “(The cemetery marker) will call attention to the fact that these people had worthwhile lives and contributed to the building of the church and the community.”

Kirkpatrick said he hopes Saturday will not just be an end, but also a beginning. He said he hopes that Sardis Presbyterian will be a model for other churches and grave sites to recognize the past.

“This is a positive step toward addressing some of the issues of our past,” he said. “It’s about the power of truth, forgiveness and understanding.”