Lake Norman & Mooresville

Project aims to track residents’ roots to slaves

The inscription on a vine-covered headstone in historically African-American Green Acres Cemetery says William Goins was born in 1858 and died in 1912.
The inscription on a vine-covered headstone in historically African-American Green Acres Cemetery says William Goins was born in 1858 and died in 1912. JOHN DEEM

A Mooresville community leader is looking to a Smithsonian-backed project to link local African-Americans to their past and perhaps to discover if former slaves are among those buried in a once-overgrown section of the town-owned Green Acres Cemetery.

“This is just a wonderful opportunity,” said Vanessa Campbell, president of the South Iredell Branch of the NAACP and the young adult coordinator for the Mooresville Public Library, which will host a Sept. 10 informational session on the Freedmen’s Bureau Project.

The national project aims to index digitally stored historical records of African-Americans from the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was organized near the end of the Civil War to assist newly freed slaves in 15 states and the District of Columbia.

From 1865 to 1872, the bureau opened schools, managed hospitals, rationed food and clothing and even solemnized marriages. In the process, it gathered priceless handwritten, personal information including marriage and family information, and military service, banking, school, hospital and property records on as many as 4 million African-Americans.

The Freedmen’s Bureau Project is tapping volunteers nationwide to enter the collected information into an online database that will allow current generations of African-Americans to discover family ties to former slaves.

The project is a partnership between FamilySearch International, the National Archives and Records Administration, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society and the California African American Museum.

On Sept. 10, a representative of FamilySearch International, a free ancestry tracking service run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, will explain the indexing process. Local NAACP officials will explain how that research can help link researchers to former slaves.

“I hope people can feel like they know more about themselves by knowing where they came from,” Campbell said.

Campbell added information from the Freedmen’s Bureau Project could be crucial in historical preservation efforts at Green Acres Cemetery, behind Watkins Chapel AME Zion Church and near the intersection of Statesville Avenue and Broad Street.

Much of the historically African-American cemetery has become overgrown and many of the gravestones worn smooth or crumbling.

Campbell said she’s curious whether former slaves could be buried there. “I’d like to find out who the first person buried in Green Acres is,” she said. “The fact that the town owns it will help.”

A walk of the cemetery last week revealed at least one person buried there who was born before the start of the Civil War. The inscription on a vine-covered headstone for William Goins said he was born in 1858 and died in 1912.

But Campbell said the best finds in the cemetery might ultimately be graves for which records have been lost. The Freedmen’s Bureau Project data, she said, could ultimately lead not just to the identification of where people were buried when they died, but also provide a link to valuable information about how they lived.

John Deem is a freelance writer:

Want to go?

The Mooresville Public Library will host an informational session on the Freedmen’s Bureau Project at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 10 at the library, 304 S. Main St. More on the Freedmen’s Bureau Project is at