‘This (You) do in remembrance of me’

Published 9:56 am Monday, March 24, 2008

From the early 1900s to the mid-1970s, committals in the African American cemetery at Gray&squo;s Chapel United Methodist Church (UMC) were plentiful. By the late 1970s, the use of the cemetery was declining. The 1980s proved to be much the same, with only four burials throughout the entire decade.

Now, the Gray&squo;s Chapel cemetery has sat dormant for nearly 20 years since the last interment in June of 1988. Burial restrictions, fewer family visits to the cemetery, and no jurisdiction of ownership have left this final resting place of former Polk and Rutherford county residents a shambles as overgrowth and downed trees eventually consumed the area.

Project beginnings

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In 2006, Janice (Paulette) Miller, daughter of former Rutherford and Polk county natives Rev. Paul and Dorothy Miller, proposed the idea for the &dquo;This (You) Do in Remembrance of Me &ellip;&dquo; Cemetery Restoration Project to the officers of the Vernon Family Reunion as part of their community outreach objective. The project would include restoring the cemeteries of Gray&squo;s Chapel UMC and Zion Grove AME Zion churches. &bsp;

&dquo;The Vernon family has taken a different approach to family unity and extended beyond the walls of our family&squo;s lineages and into the community,&dquo; states Vernon Family Reunion President Dr. Mary Vernon-Smiley, formerly of Campobello. &bsp;

When asked how the cemetery got to this level of neglect Miller explained, &dquo;The interesting thing about the Gray&squo;s Chapel African American Cemetery is that it has always been privately owned, so no one entity (to include the local African American community) has ever taken responsibility for its overall upkeep. Because of this gray area, the cemetery has suffered and gone neglected.

&dquo;There are a couple of theories about how the cemetery originated,&dquo; she continues.&bsp; &dquo;There is some speculation that the cemetery may have been established under a different name but lost its identity over time.&bsp; With this theory it is believed that the cemetery may have adopted the identity of the Gray&squo;s Chapel UMC due to the close proximity of the church to the cemetery.&dquo;

Miller said that because the demographics of those buried in the area are so varied, another notion circulating about the origination of the cemetery is that it was perhaps established by slave owners to provide proper burials for slaves once they died.

&dquo;Despite the theories, one thing we do know about the history of the property is that it was once part of the 466-acre &squo;David Thomas McClain (Sr.) Place&squo; on Green River. Upon the death of David McClain Sr. in 1948 the property was equally divided among his children, and his son David McClain Jr. inherited the portion of land housing the cemetery. It has since changed ownership four times. The most recent transition was in 2006 between the Tryon Arts & Crafts Center and Gray&squo;s Chapel UMC.&dquo;&bsp; &bsp;

When asked where her initial desire to restore the community came from, Miller said, &dquo;Over the years my heart became heavy for my ancestors and the abandoned resting places we have created. Especially when I think of the incredible sacrifices they made for African Americans in the Polk and Rutherford county communities. My grandfather, great grandfather, great aunts and uncles, and a host of 4th and 5th generation cousins are buried at Gray&squo;s Chapel so the emotional stakes are high for me.&dquo;

The same holds true for Jennie Smith, member of Green Creek Missionary Baptist Church, whose father, grandparents, aunts and other relatives are buried at Gray&squo;s Chapel.

&dquo;On one occasion I visited the cemetery with relatives from Shelby,&dquo; Smith said.&bsp;&dquo;(Because of the condition of the cemetery,) our conversation
turned into prayers that someone would initiate a project to restore the resting place of our loved ones.&bsp; J.P. Miller was praying similarly and God used her as the catalyst to begin a very successful cemetery restoration project.&dquo; Smith said.

Miller has committed to restore the Old Zion Grove Cemetery in the spring of 2009. &bsp;

&dquo;My grandfather and many of the others buried at Gray&squo;s Chapel were dedicated members, laborers, and tithers of Zion Grove A.M.E. Zion Church and established the foundation for future generations of worshippers. Simply put, I just want to restore honor where honor is due.&bsp; And I know that my grandpa would be proud that I am including the abandoned cemetery of his home church in this effort.&dquo;

Miller began her research and soon became connected with Rev. Harold Smisor, pastor, Gray&squo;s Chapel UMC, Kathy Taft of the Polk County Historical Association, Cathie Campbell of the Polk County Community Foundation, and Jennie Smith, member of Green Creek Missionary Baptist Church.

Project name

When asked where the project name came from, Miller said, &dquo;The name of the project came to me in the middle of Sunday morning service. I began to meditate on 1 Cor. 23-27 and the very specific instructions Jesus left His disciples as to how He wanted to be memorialized. Jesus asked that we do this &squo;in remembrance of Him.&squo;

&dquo;In His request I saw similarities to the modern day cemetery,&dquo; Miller continued. &dquo;Although the spirits of our ancestors have been long gone, the cemetery is their memorial&ellip;. a place of remembrance, and we must respect and honor this memorial by maintaining it to a functional level.&bsp; After a certain point it was as if the ancestors were telling me &ellip; &squo;This (You) Do in Remembrance of Me.&squo;&dquo;

Community support

&dquo;Everyone has been so supportive of my efforts,&dquo; Miller said. &dquo;When I made initial contact, it felt as if they had been awaiting my call. I have been so wonderfully blessed with the level of cooperation from each of them and other family members.&dquo;

&dquo;As a co-compiler with Al Creasy of the &squo;Polk County Cemetery Census,&squo; Kathy Taft said, &dquo;it pleases the historical association to see a neglected cemetery return to life.&bsp; History needs to be preserved for future generations.&dquo;

Miller described the commitment and solidarity of the community as beyond words.

&dquo;Each work day has been very successful and well attended,&dquo; she said. &dquo;The most recent was February 25. Aside from the transformation of the cemetery there were other dynamics operating as well. The day was one of food and fellowship, a day of reuniting family members where contact had been lost, as well as a day of working with the community toward a common goal. Our next scheduled work day is Saturday, April 5 from noon to 3 p.m. with an inclement weather date of April 12.&dquo;

Miller said she is really excited about this work day, when the volunteers will be joined by Sandra Pateat&squo;s Cub Scout Pack #659.

&bsp;&dquo;I think it&squo;s awesome that our young people will be involved in this project,&dquo; she said.

Financial resources

Miller said the project needs financial support from the community.

&dquo;I am very proud of the things that the volunteers have accomplished,&dquo; she said. &dquo;However, I am in desperate need of donations to complete the project.&dquo;&bsp;&bsp; &bsp;

To solicit donors, Ms. Miller has constructed a letter and telephone campaign designed to involve the African American churches and funeral homes in the area.

Those interested in donating to the cemetery restoration project can make checks payable to Vernon Family Reunion ‐ Memo: Cemetery Restoration Project and mail them to Vernon Family Reunion, c/o Charrondia Dobson, Tres., P. O. Box 314, Whitsett, N.C.&bsp; 27377.

‐ submitted by &dquo;Jp&dquo;
at&bsp; vernonfamilysec@aol.com