Sacred ground was gnawed

BY JOSH SHAFFER – Staff Writer

Published in: April 16 Storms

In historic Mount Hope Cemetery, where a thousand Raleigh souls are resting, a huge oak tree lies torn from the ground and splayed across the grave of Clarence Lightner, the city’s first black mayor.

Part of his face has been scratched from the portrait on his stone.

A few blocks east, an even larger oak fell to the grass in City Cemetery, narrowly missing the monument to Jacob Johnson – father of Andrew Johnson, the nation’s 17th president.

And just a few blocks west, the Confederates interred in Oakwood Cemetery now repose under a tangle of snapped limbs too heavy to lift. The grave of Pvt. John Nevills is completely hidden inside the wreckage of branches.

In all, the storm that ripped through Raleigh this month punished the dead along with the living, scattering debris over the city’s history and crushing some of its finest scenery.

Oakwood, which is private, had cleared the maze of roads that roll over its grounds in time for Easter Sunday, and it’s hoped that all the damage will be repaired in time for a Sons of Confederate Veterans event in May, Superintendent Chuck Gooch said.

But Mount Hope, City and O’Rorke cemeteries – all Raleigh property – remain closed, their gates locked and their borders strung with police tape. They are deemed too dangerous to visit, considering the deep pits left by root balls standing 10 feet high.

“I was in shock for three days or so because the trees were so old and so massive,” said Jane Thurman, chair of Raleigh City Cemeteries Preservation. “Just to see them lying on the ground …”

Repairing them will take time, money and planning, and none of the specifics is certain yet. With sawed-up trunks stacked along so many corners near downtown, and with so many buildings damaged, the emphasis is on helping people in the here and now. But the cemeteries group hopes people will volunteer when work begins.

Few stones were broken in any of the cemeteries. Those that were damaged were mostly knocked over. So Thurman feels fortunate that so many monuments were spared.Many stones recently repaired, such as Johnson’s in City Cemetery, escaped damage.

But she hopes the importance of so much history, clustered around downtown, directly in the storm’s path, won’t be forgotten.

“They’re open space first and foremost,” Thurman said. “They’re sacred burial grounds, and they’re a link to the city’s history. They have the stories of the people buried in them that tell the story of the city – every economic level and every occupation.”

It appears that Mount Hope on Fayetteville Street took the worst of the storm’s force. Founded in 1872 as a city-owned black cemetery, it includes the graves of the Rev. Henry Beard Delany, who at the time of his death was one of two black bishops of the Episcopal Church, and Col. James H. Young, commander of a black regiment during the Spanish-American War.

Today, it looks like a bomb hit it – an intrusion into centuries of shady peace. or 919-829-4818