Spring in coastal Wilmington, NC brings to mind beaches, the Cape Fear River and the beloved azalea plant for the area’s many gardeners. However spring is also a time of the year to get out and visit many of the area’s historic sites and places.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation designates the month of May as National Historic Preservation month. The national theme for 2012 is ”Discover America’s Hidden Gems”. It is a wonderful time to visit and support historic treasures in our area such as Pine Forest Cemetery. Pine Forest has provided a beautiful resting place for African Americans for more than 150 years. Reportedly a smaller burial ground for African Americans as early as 1840, the land now referred to as Pine Forest Cemetery constitutes approximately 20 acres. It was deeded in 1871 to a Board of Trustees originally established as The Pine Forest Cemetery Company. State Representative George Price, Jr. introduced legislation in the N.C. General Assembly for the incorporation of the land and for its use as a cemetery for African-Americans in Wilmington. Immediately after the bill passed, the City of Wilmington deeded 15 acres to the Cemetery, just adjacent to the Oakdale Cemetery on the north side of town.
As reported in the N.C. Business Directory in 1869, the first president of the Board of Trustees was Samuel Reid and the first superintendent was Daniel Smith. Early board members included Alfred Howe, Alexander Moore, Alexander Price, John Norwood and Joseph Sampson. Access to the grounds was difficult in the early years because the area now known as Rankin Street was poorly developed. There were no paved roadways and by 1875, a road was opened from Market Street along North Seventeenth Street to provide access. In addition, a wooden walkway was created from North Fourth Street along Red Cross and Rankin to provide access from downtown.
In 1898, during the Wilmington racial massacre, Pine Forest served as a hiding place for many women and children who fearfully fled their homes. In We Have Taken a City, The Wilmington Racial Massacre and Coup of 1898, author H. Leon Prather, Sr. vividly writes ”… but no precautions had been made for the blacks of Brooklyn, many of whom fled to the woods for survival. The Messenger reported that ”a crowd of at least 500 men, women and children were on the road and in the woods beyond Smith’s Creek bridge.” According to accounts from my paternal great-grandmother, Athalia Howe Whitfield, those woods beyond Smith’s Creek bridge included acreage within Pine Forest Cemetery . She was a small girl at the time and fled to the woods with her immediate family. As an adult, she vividly recalled the safe haven found in Pine Forest and told us many stories about that dark era in Wilmington’s history.
Over the years, Pine Forest continued to be governed by a community based board of trustees . In January 1933 a certificate of incorporation was filed with the N.C. Secretary of State’s Office. The certificate defined Pine Forest as ”a benevolent and charitable institution, formed by the colored people of the City of Wilmington for the purpose of burying their dead and protecting the cemetery lots wherein their dead have been buried…”. Family plots were purchased by individual families and maintenance was the responsibility of each family. The board held responsibility for overall beautification and upkeep of the grounds and as areas were cleared, a park-like landscape was achieved. Magnificent oak, magnolia, pine and dogwoods sprinkled the grounds with seasonal blossoms of camellias and azaleas.
As weather patterns began to change and seasonal storms intensified in the twentieth century, many families became unable to maintain their plots. Pine Forest ultimately fell into disarray. By the late 1980’s a movement began to restore the grounds and clear vegetative growth that was left unchecked for decades as board members aged and were unable to perform the physical labor themselves. Cemetery records of various ceremonies and services held at Pine Forest reflect a collective effort in the African-American community to maintain respect for the dead while celebrating the vast history that the cemetery holds. Beautiful granite and marble head stones and markers were restored to their original beauty and by the end of the twentieth century, the grandeur of Pine Forest was more evident than ever. For years, area churches held combined Easter Sunday sunrise service in Pine Forest in a united and soul stirring celebration of the resurrection of Christ. Choirs filled the grounds with beautiful and melodious sounds with the rising sun as their backdrop.
Today, the cemetery continues to operate as a non-profit corporation in the state of North Carolina. Several community members and organizations have volunteered time, talent and gifts to the upkeep and beautification of the grounds. Superintendent James Lofton has led the charge to engage the community as the board restructured itself in the early years of the twenty-first century. The current Board of Trustees consists of the following members: Clarence Fredlaw, Jr. – President; Fanny Chestnut Hairston – Vice-President; James Lofton – Superintendent; Evelyn Hinnant – Recording Secretary; Barbara Chestnut Kane-Financial Secretary; John Davis-Treasurer; Wayne Lofton, Parliamentarian & Chaplain; Cynthia J. Brown-Historian; and William Boyd-Member-at-large.
As the National Historic Preservation Trust celebrates Historic Preservation month in May, the Pine Forest Board of Trustees encourages the community to visit the cemetery and discover one of Wilmington’s hidden gems. Thanks to a local Boys Scout project that began in 2008, the grounds have benches and markers for those who wish to take self-guided walking tours. The Cemetery is open daily between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., and the superintendent
is generally on site in warmer months during morning hours.
The Pine Forest Board of Trustees meets monthly and is currently engaged in a strategic planning process to ensure the Cemetery’s viability for years to come. Expenses for grounds maintenance, equipment and repairs to stones are covered in part by fees received for the opening and closing of gravesites. With Pine Forest nearing capacity for burials, the Board now relies heavily on donations to offset these costs.
This month, you are encouraged to come out and discover the beauty and history that Pine Forest holds. The grounds present a wonderful opportunity for young and old to learn more about local African American history. Head stones and markers of prominent and not so prominent families tell a story of the rich
African-American history of Wilmington.
During National Historic Preservation month all donors will receive a special ”thank you” from the Pine Forest Board of Trustees. Donors at the $50 level or higher will receive a special gift from the Board of Trustees. All donations should be mailed to: Pine Forest Cemetery Company, c/o Mrs. Barbara Chestnut Kane, P. O. Box 1065, Wilmington, NC 28401. For more information about Pine Forest Cemetery, contact James Lofton at (910) 762-3305 or any member of the Board of Trustees.