Oak Grove Freedman’s Cemetery Memorial, Salisbury
Maggie Smith, Seattle, WA, Designer
The Oak Grove Freedman’s Cemetery is the burial site of over 150 mostly unknown African-American men, women and children. The memorial wall to those interred there is made of granite with sections of granite engraved with words of poetry and quotes from former slaves and famous African-Americans along with donor acknowledgements. The memorial wall runs along part of West Liberty Street and along North Church Street until meeting a rock wall built in 1855 which separated white and black burial areas. Along N. Church St. the wall rises in steps to follow the hillside. Along W. Liberty St. it rises from both sides in a series of steps. The construction is laid stone using mostly squared stones of random lengths and heights. The Freedman’s Cemetery is part of a larger parcel known as the Old English Cemetery. As a symbolic part of the memorial an opening was created in the 1855 wall that separated the white and black sections of this larger cemetery parcel. The removed stones were then randomly placed near the opening, giving a scattered appearance.
Denny Mecham, one of the project facilitators stated, “The enhanced burial site will stand as a compassionate symbol which acknowledges the past, challenges us to think about the present, and offers hope for future generations.” According to the wall’s designer Maggie Smith, “the restoration and memorialization of the Oak Grove-Freedman’s Cemetery has one primary goal: to symbolically and literally bring the desecrated part of the cemetery back into the community’s embrace.”
Plaque at 1855 wall opening: AND WHO SHALL SEPARATE THE / DUST WHICH LATER WE SHALL BE…? / - GEORGIA DOUGLAS JOHNSON
THIS GRANITE WALL WAS BUILT IN 1855, / REPLACING AN EARLIER PALING FENCE, / WHICH DIVIDED THE ONCE COMMON / BURIAL GROUND. THIS OPENING WAS / CREATED IN 2005. THE STONES LYING / NEARBY WERE REMOVED FROM THE WALL.
Cemetery history plaque: OAK GROVE FREEDMAN’S CEMETERY / THIS HILLSIDE HAS LONG SERVED AS A BURIAL GROUND FOR AFRICAN / AMERICANS. IT WAS ORIGINALLY PART OF THE OAK GROVE CEMETERY, / FOUNDED BEFORE 1770, WHERE WERE ALSO BURIED WHITE SETTLERS / AND CITIZENS, AND BRITISH SOLDIERS. IN 1855 A GRANITE WALL WAS / BUILT TO ENCLOSE A PART OF THE CEMETERY NOW CALLED THE OLD / ENGLISH, EXCLUDING MOST AFRICAN AMERICAN GRAVES. / IN 1873 THE REMOVAL OF A TREE UNCOVERED WHAT APPEARED TO BE A / NATIVE AMERICAN BURIAL SITE. / IN 1903 LIBERTY STREET WAS CONSTRUCTED AND AFRICAN AMERICAN / GRAVES WERE DISTURBED. THE REMAINS WERE REMOVED TO OAKDALE / CEMETERY NEAR LIVINGSTONE COLLEGE. IN 1922 THE STREET WAS / WIDENDED AND REMAINS WERE ONCE AGAIN REMOVED TO OAKDALE / CEMETERY. THE CONCRETE RETAINING WALL ALONG LIBERTY STREET WAS / ERECTED AT THIS TIME. AS LATE AS 1940 THERE WERE WOODEN GRAVE / MARKERS HERE WHICH DETERIORATED OR WERE REMOVED.
WE WERE HERE / WE MADE A CONTRIBUTION / RUBY LEE MILLER
Example of quote: FREEDOM / IS A STRONG SEED / PLANTED / IN A GREAT NEED / (Langston Hughes)
City of Salisbury
January 16, 2006
35.670080 , -80.468900 View in Geobrowse
"The Freedman’s Cemetery Memorial: A Compassionate Symbol,” Waterworks Visual Arts Center, (accessed April 28, 2017) Link
Setzer, David. “Oak Grove Freedman’s Cemetery…10 Years Ago,” Salisbury Post (Salisbury, NC), August 28, 2016, (accessed April 28, 2017) Link
Upton, Dell. "African-American Monuments and Memorials," from “Commemorative Landscapes of North Carolina”, http://docsouth.unc.edu/commland/, (accessed May 16, 2012) Link
Upton, Dell. What Can and Can’t Be Said: Race, Uplift and Monument Building in the Contemporary South (Cambridge, MA: Yale University Press, 2015) Link
“Oak Grove Freedman’s Cemetery,” Find-A-Grave, findagrave.com, (accessed April 1, 2017) Link
“Old English Cemetery,” HMbd.org, (accessed September 16, 2015) Link
Waterworks Visual Arts Center
The dedication was held in 2006 during Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebrations.
The Old English cemetery is one of the oldest in Salisbury with burials beginning in 1775. It is home to the graves of soldiers who died in 1780 at the Battle of Camden and to British soldiers who died in Salisbury during their occupation. A monument to John W. Ellis, the North Carolina Governor at the time of Secession, is erected on his grave, not far from a memorial to Four Unknown Confederate Soldiers.
In 1842, a wooden fence was erected around the Old English Cemetery separating the burial sites of African Americans and whites for the first time. In 1855, citizens of Salisbury raised money to replace the fence with a granite wall. In 1975, the City of Salisbury assumed ownership of the cemetery and closed it to future burials.
Creating a breach in the 1855 wall stirred controversy. One opponent used the term “violation” to express his discomfort. Others stated that this particular aspect of the memorial design brings “animosity” instead of “unity.”
The Memorial Wall is located at the corner of West Liberty Street and North Church Street in downtown Salisbury, NC facing Soldiers’ Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church.
A low wall built of rusticated stone blocks surrounds the whole cemetery. Stone blocks removed from the opening are randomly placed across the lawn.