Graves by the Sea
Across two narrow strips of sandy, marshy land, a team of volunteers is making Currituck County unique in answering a statewide call to document lost Black gravesites. What can their efforts teach us about remembrance and memorial? // Illustration by Isabel Seliger
Barbara Snowden can’t find the graveyard.
We’re driving down a quiet road between Albemarle Sound and Caratoke Highway, and Snowden—the president of the Currituck County Historical Society—is flipping through a county cemetery records book while scrutinizing dots 83 and 84 on a map. She’s assessing whether we missed Fisher’s Landing, a family cemetery that should be around here.
Snowden is the type of Currituck resident who knows at which gas station you can buy homemade 12-layer chocolate cake and which farmer you need to call up to ask for permission to drive onto his field to study a historic grave. This is her home, and it shows.
But it’s not easy to find graveyards in Currituck, a 20-by-40-mile strip of coastal land tucked into North Carolina’s northeastern corner. Many graves here are family plots or mounds on farmed fields. In the 1990s, Currituck historians chronicled those graves in that cemetery records book.
But the book’s creators left out something crucial: all the county’s Black graves. Now, Snowden and an army of volunteers are working to fix that problem before development, rising tides, and an aging population render these sites lost forever.
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Currituck County consists of two strips, one on the mainland and one on the Outer Banks, where wild mustangs descended from Spaniards’ horses still roam the beaches. The county is rural, sparse, with no incorporated communities. Today, many of its residents work in tourism or commute north to the military bases and industry in southeastern Virginia. Caratoke Highway cuts between stretches of farmland, lined with shrimp shacks, tobacco barns, tourist shops, a water park, billboards advertising hurricane shutters—and graves.
The graves are everywhere here, on front lawns and arable fields. One notable site features a rainbow, an array of angel statues, and a tombstone with a death date of 1915. More typical are the quieter plots: one, in the middle of a cornfield, was founded by a nearby Black farming family and is still used today. Only a few places in Currituck boast a full cemetery, such as the one on Waterlily Road, sticking out into the moody sound, where Outer Banks residents have traditionally taken their dead instead of burying them in the shifting sands of a hurricane-prone strip of land.
Currituck’s particular geography and rurality created the county’s cemetery culture.
“Everybody was so far apart, and the county’s so long and spread out, that people buried their own,” says Snowden.
But a lack of centralized burial grounds means that these graves—and the lives of the people interred beneath them—are constantly at risk of being forgotten or destroyed.
Photos by Emily Cataneo
“A farmer gets closer and closer to the grave [on his property] and if there’s no marker there, then it becomes incorporated into the farm,” says Snowden. But the threat to these cemeteries from the county’s soybean, corn, and wheat farms is nothing new; what is new is the pace of development.
Currituck, one of the state’s original counties, was once a spread of quiet fishing villages and a playground for wealthy gun enthusiasts and sportsmen during the Gilded Age and Roaring Twenties, when duck hunters vacationed on the Outer Banks. But it’s now seeing a boom in new homes and complexes, which often results in graves disappearing under the machinery of clueless construction crews.
The problem is twofold for Black graves. Melissa Timo, a historic cemetery specialist at the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology, says that the entire United States has an issue with overlooking Black graves. There are many reasons for this: Poorer communities tended to mark graves with wood, plants, or other cheap materials, which degrade or fail to catch historians’ eyes. Enslaved people buried their dead in remote or undesirable places like boggy ground. West African burial rites relied on objects like mirrors or glass that we might not recognize as a grave marker today. Secondly, the changing demographics of areas like Currituck, which has seen an influx of predominantly white beach-dwellers, leads to communal memory loss.
“Historical communities are not modern communities,” says Timo. “African American communities in coastal communities, beachside communities [like Currituck]—they move out, and it becomes a very touristy environment.”
But chronicling these graves is essential, both for the historical record and for equity.
“In communities where land ownership wasn’t always possible, sometimes a cemetery is all that’s left [of that community],” Timo says.
In Currituck, the dearth of information about Black graves makes it difficult for the county’s genealogists and historians to do their jobs. Over a barbeque lunch next to an old Rosenwald school, a type of institution funded by Booker T. Washington and a Sears Roebuck tycoon for Black children throughout the segregated South, Snowden explains to me why she’s so invested in this project.
“Basically it’s going to make my life a lot easier,” says Snowden, who is white. “I always get phone calls, looking for a great-grandfather or grandmother’s grave, and I have to ask if they’re white or Black.” If the caller is white, Snowden can look them up in her cemetery book. If they’re Black, she can’t help them.
“Plus,” she says, more soberly, “they need to be recorded. Especially the ones that are isolated—they’re disappearing. Once they disappear, there’s no way to get them back.”
Photo by Emily Cataneo
Timo’s office, along with the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources and the NC African American Heritage Commission, is rolling out an outreach initiative to ask every county in the state to chronicle its Black graves. So far, Currituck is the only one that’s taken up the charge. In October 2019, Timo drove to the coast and trained a group of volunteers. She told them how to find graves, how to recognize different cultural markers, how to care for cemeteries. (You should never use harsh chemicals like bleach—“treat the stones like teeth”—says Timo.) She talked about best practices for recording: For example, she counseled volunteers to avoid correcting misspellings on the gravestones when writing down inscriptions, since misspellings can reveal historical pronunciations.
When COVID-19 is over and the project can begin in earnest, Currituck’s volunteers will use worksheets to record information about each grave, which they’ll then submit to the state. Thirteen volunteers, about half Black and half white, are currently signed up to help.
One of the volunteers, Leon Saunders, has lived his whole life behind the Corinth Baptist Church cemetery. It’s one of the largest Black cemeteries in the county, located next door to the Historic Jarvisburg Colored School, a restored site from the days of segregation. In the cemetery, Saunders points out his parents’ graves, as well as the grave of Benjamin Bowser, an early leader of the famous all-Black Pea Island Life-Saving Station. He also indicates two stumps, made of either cedar or locust wood, commemorating the dead who couldn’t afford a tombstone. The temporary plaques that once marked these graves are long gone, so finding out who was buried there is unlikely.
“It’s kind of impossible to figure out some of those graves,” Saunders says, adding that if anybody knows, it’d be him, since he grew up listening to stories from old-timers.
Saunders says this project is important to him because of his commitment to preserving his heritage.
“You tell your children or grandchildren how it was back in the day, and they just don’t believe it,” says Saunders, who is 75. He looks down—we’re standing in a dip in the ground. Are we on a grave right now? He says that we just might be.
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Future generations and their historians might not roam their neighborhoods taking down grave inscriptions and cleaning headstones. Our attitudes toward death traditions are changing, with a trend toward cremation and green burials moving us away from the typical family plot or community graveyard—and away from former methods of understanding our past.
Photos by Emily Cataneo
“I think we’re going to have a major problem [as death culture continues to shift],” says Snowden. “Especially people who are trying to do genealogy. They won’t have that one source. They’ll have the death records, but sometimes they’re incomplete. A family cemetery can lead you two or three generations back.”
Melissa Timo, though, is not as concerned about the implications of the shift away from gravesites. She points out that, in the past, rural families used to dump their garbage on their properties, meaning that future historians could learn a lot about an individual household from the garbage pit in their backyard. With the advent of the town dump, that changed—and yet we still manage to learn about rural families and their lifestyles, just through different traditions than garbage pits. In the case of cemeteries, Timo points out that the typical Judeo-Christian burial ground has never been the only way to commemorate death, and that today’s deceased leave parts of themselves behind in the form of digital artifacts and unusual burial choices, such as having their remains turned into a coral reef or shot into space.
“It’ll be a little trickier but will still result in a lot of interesting interpretations [of the past],” says Timo.
Even if graveyards are but one, perhaps fading, way to connect with the dead and bear witness to their existence, I’ve always loved them. From the grand and macabre European garden cemeteries to the Puritan burial grounds hiding in the New England forests, cemeteries are a way to see how each generation grappled with death. How some favored the pragmatism and morbidity of a carved skull on a gravestone while others favored a more comforting and treaclier symbol like a lamb. How seaside communities carved ships on their graves, or how certain regions cultivated tombstone trends at particular times—such as the smattering of blue, metal graves that I’ve noticed in 19th century cemeteries across upstate New York. Visiting graveyards puts names into our heads that we would never otherwise know, allowing us to learn a sliver of an erstwhile human’s life, even if all we learn is that they were a mother or a sister or that they died at 16.
For many historians, the act of chronicling, or not chronicling, a cemetery, or even the act of discovering a cemetery in the first place, is a decision about what we value. The names we remember, the sites we notice, the stories we care about—these are inextricably tied with the way we view history. Should we spend our time cleaning and maintaining a Confederate general’s grave? Or find and nurture a long-lost cemetery for enslaved people?
Drive up and down 158 in Currituck and train yourself to notice the proliferation of graves, and soon you’ll be thinking about the importance of who is commemorated by these small, physical markers left on the built environment—and why.
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In Currituck, finding all of those graves is just part of the project. The volunteers’ first task will be easy: They’ll chronicle the county’s few big church and community cemeteries, like Corinth. The next phase of their project will require calling individuals, looking for tips, and venturing into remote places to record sites like the grave of 19th century educator Oscar Frost, tucked away in a swamp in Maple. They’ll search individual backyards, like Snowden’s own: More than a hundred years ago, a Black man showed up at the Snowden house, ill with polio and asking for work. He stayed in the old kitchen and kept the yard, and when he died they buried him in the family plot under a stone slab with a simple carved stone that reads “Jack Spence” and “1848-1923.”
Photo by Emily Cataneo
The volunteers will have to contend with the fact that just as some white family plots contain Black graves, so too do some predominately white cemeteries. That’s why Snowden wanted to find the Fisher’s Landing graveyard. She’d never been there before, but she’d heard a rumor that it might contain some Black graves.
“A gentleman called and told us that,” she explained.
We try the cemetery at dot 83 on the book’s map, but Snowden doesn’t see anything promising. We poke further down toward the sound and another cemetery appears: a handful of graves on a mowed lawn, tucked under trees with eagles darting overhead.
Immediately, Snowden heads for a line of three graves. Each features a headstone and a footstone, as well as a slab under an A-frame cedar and tin roof. Pine needles and leaves have filtered in where the tin has rusted through or collapsed. Inside one grave, three marbled conch shells rest on the slab. The interred here include Emmanuel Gordon, 1869-1890, and Joanna Gordon née Case, 1851-1936.
Could these be the rumored Black graves? Snowden runs the arm of her sunglasses around a circular emblem of two shaking hands on a tombstone.
“I’m interested in this,” she says, thinking out loud. “There were a lot of Black fraternal organizations.”
Joanna’s last name, Case, provides a clue. “I do not know of any Cases who are white in the county,” says Snowden. The Cases were free Blacks, she says, and comparatively well-off and respected in Currituck.
Then, there’s the fact that the graves are isolated behind two rows of shrubs in their own section of Fisher’s Landing cemetery, mirroring segregation.
“I’m saying this is the Black cemetery, because Case is a family that’s Black,” she says; then, more emphatically, “Looking at these, as a historian, I think these are the Black graves.”
She grins, big and open-mouthed, the smile of a history buff who’s cracked a mystery. Now there’s one more site to put on the list for the volunteers, and the lives of Emmanuel and Joanna will not be lost—not to the sea, or to development, or to the brand-new memories of a younger generation.
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Emily Cataneo is a writer and journalist based in Raleigh. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Boston Globe, The Baffler, Slate, NPR, Atlas Obscura, and more. She's also the co-founder of the Redbud Writing Project.