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ECU researcher uncovers 400 graves in abandoned African American cemetery

Updated: Jun. 15, 2021 at 7:13 PM EDT
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GREENVILLE, N.C. (WITN) - Off of Lee Street in Ayden sits an old, largely forgotten graveyard for African Americans.

ECU archaeology researcher Dr. Charles Ewen found nearly 400 graves at the site.

“This is the largest one that most people have forgotten about,” said Ewen, who has worked on several cemeteries. “400 is a lot of peeps.”

After a Boy Scout wanted to clean up the area as part of an Eagle Scout project, the town of Ayden realized they had a bigger discovery on their hands.

The town manager of Ayden, Matthew Livingston, said they recruited Dr. Ewen to solve the mystery of who these graves belong to.

“I guess they have been somewhat forgotten and we don’t want that to continue,” said Livingston.

Dr. Ewen, who runs the Archaeology Lab at ECU, brought his class to help uncover the graves. Together they found hundreds of mismatched gravestones, some just depressions in the earth, revealing the lost graveyard dating back to 1908.

“This starts during segregation. Blacks couldn’t be buried in the town cemetery, so they found a place where they could be buried,” said Dr. Ewen.

He said the fact that the graves are buried right next to a larger, town-maintained cemetery could point to why it was abandoned.

“As more and more people started burying people in the Northeast Cemetery, fewer and fewer people took care of things here until eventually, it just sort of...no one’s taking care of it,” he explained.

Dr. Ewen said the next steps include using technology to dig deeper into the earth to possibly uncover more graves and talking to the community to learn who was laid to rest there.

Town Manager Matthew Livingston said the land the cemetery sits on doesn’t belong to anyone. Technically that gives the town of Ayden ownership, and Livingston said they plan make the site accessible and restore it to the best of their ability.

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