More Than Our Past
We visit cemeteries to connect to people from the past. We pay our respects to deceased friends and family members; we clean and decorate graves; we take rubbings of engraved headstones; we piece together our family histories.
But cemeteries tell us much more than the names and lifespans of the people who lived before us. Cemeteries tell stories about our community’s past, present, and future.
Reading the Landscape
Factors like where a cemetery is located; its size, shape, and topography; how graves are oriented, marked, and decorated; and how a cemetery is maintained can help us understand a community’s values and the policies that have impacted them.
In this exhibit, we’ll look at both the people laid to rest in the South Asheville Cemetery–Western North Carolina’s oldest public cemetery for African American burials–as well as the cemetery’s landscape in order to explore the broader history of Asheville and better understand how our history continues to effect our present.
A Close Connection
The South Asheville Cemetery was founded in the early 1800s as a burial ground for people who had been enslaved by the Smith family–the first family to live in what is currently known as the Smith-McDowell House, a c1840s brick mansion that is now home to the Western North Carolina Historical Association (WNCHA). The house and cemetery eventually came into the possession of one of the Smith daughters, who married a McDowell. Even though the house was sold out of the McDowell family in 1881, at least part of the cemetery land was owned by the McDowell family until 1981.
With such a close association between WNCHA’s facility and the cemetery, we are uniquely positioned to help uncover the history of this burial ground and the hidden histories of the people buried within its bounds.
Because it was illegal for enslaved people to learn to read or write, the best source of written primary documentation we have about people who were enslaved in Western North Carolina often comes from letters, wills, deeds, and other written communications from their enslavers. It is important to keep in mind, then, that what we know about the people buried in the South Asheville Cemetery prior to 1865 has most often been written by their enslavers.
the number of graves
in the South Asheville Cemetery
according to a 2002 survey
the number of graves
with engraved markers
in the South Asheville Cemetery
the number of burials
in the South Asheville Cemetery after 1914
according to a survey of death certificates
From southashevillecemetery.net: In the Spring of 2014, Warren Wilson College environmental studies graduate Linden Blaisus (class of 2011) and members of the Warren Wilson College GIS crew digitized a comprehensive grave mapping effort conducted by the College’s archeology crew. The Warren Wilson College archeology crew gathered these data with the help of volunteers and AmeriCorps teams over the 1990s and early 2000s. The original archeological map is above. The newly geo-referenced Google Earth file (as a KML file) is available for download by clicking the button below.
Before 1776The founding of the South Asheville Cemetery begins with its first burial. To determine when the first burial occurred in the cemetery, we have to go back to the beginnings of non-native settlement in the area. Like all of Asheville, the 2-acre parcel of land on which the South Asheville Cemetery is located was Cherokee land, and the land of their ancestors. The 2-acre parcel of land that the cemetery now encompasses likely came into non-native possession by way of a land grant from the state of North Carolina.
nd of their ancestors.
Image (at right): An artist’s conception of the Pisgah village at the Warren Wilson site (drawing by Frank Weir, 1970; from Dickens 1976:95). Accessed April 15, 2021 from UNC Archaeology
Image (below): Map showing native lands in Western North Carolina from Native Land Digital. Accessed April 15, 2021
Founding a Cemetery
From oral tradition, we believe that the first non-native settlers in the Asheville area were white families and the enslaved African Americans who were forced to come with them into the Blue Ridge Mountains in the 1780s.
Varying newspaper reports, dating back to the 1980s theorize potential dates for when the first burial occurred in the South Asheville Cemetery. These reports include the following phrases “the cemetery could have been in use since the 1790s,” “graves date at least as far back as 1834,” and “according to oral tradition, there is a tombstone in the cemetery that dates back to 1854, and is the only tombstone in North Carolina of someone who died while enslaved.”
Unfortunately, we haven’t yet been able to verify any of these dates, and we don’t currently know the date of the earliest burial in what would become South Asheville Cemetery. It is possible, however, that it was prior to the turn of the 19th century.
To estimate a founding date, we need a fuller picture of the history of the land and the lives of the people who may have been laid to rest there.
Image (below): The 1787 land grant from the state to William Stewart of 640 acres in Burke County, State Archives of North Carolina
Colonialization by Land Grant
After the creation of North Carolina as a state in 1776 one of the first duties of the General Assembly was to pass an act in November 1777 that allowed men who swore their allegiance to the state to purchase 640 acres of “vacant” land for 50 shillings an acre and begin colonizing the area.
We know from land deeds that Daniel Smith, the first of this line of the Smith family to settle here, purchased 308 acres from William Stewart in 1796, which was part of Stewart’s 640-acre land grant purchase from the state in 1787. Stewart’s land ran along the east side of the French Broad River and included acreage on both sides of the Swannanoa River.
Image (at right): Deed for 308 acres at the mouth of the Swannanoa River to Daniel Smith from William Stewart, April 21, 1796 (Buncombe County Register of Deeds, Book 3, Page 92)
Daniel Smith’s 308-acre tract appears to have covered much of what is now the Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College campus to the north and east of the confluence of the Swannanoa and French Broad rivers, but doesn’t appear to quite reach the land that is now home to the 2,000+ people buried in the South Asheville Cemetery.
We are pretty confident, however, that Daniel Smith, who waged war against native people throughout his life, was the first person in this branch of the Smith family to enslave people in the Asheville area–people who could have potentially passed away while enslaved by the family. At this time, we don’t know where they would have been buried.
Image (at left): Map of the confluence of the French Broad and Swannanoa Rivers showing in yellow the approximate location of the 308-acre tract that Daniel Smith purchased from William Stewart in 1796 and its relation to the present-day location of the South Asheville Cemetery (blue pin) and Smith-McDowell House (red pin)
Image (below): Daniel Smith’s rifle, Long Tom, on display at the Smith-McDowell House
It appears that the land that is now the South Asheville Cemetery became part of the Smith family’s land holdings when Daniel’s son, James, purchased a 254-acre tract from Lorenzo D. Patton on November 7, 1831 for $864 (Book 16/468). Lorenzo had inherited the land from his father, John Patton, who had purchased it from NC land grant recipients in 1794. The land remained with James Smith until his death in 1856 when he willed the land to his daughter, Sarah Lucinda Smith. Smith wrote in his 1850 will:
I will and devise to her and her heirs forever the tract of land on the south of Asheville on both sides of the Buncombe T. P. [turnpike] road (and at the fork leading by Foster’s) which tract I purchased of L. D. Patton and is supposed to contain about three hundred and twenty acres, all of which I estimate at four thousand three hundred dollars.
This is supported by the 1981 transfer of the land from descendants of Sarah Lucinda McDowell to the South Asheville Cemetery Association (Book 1278/92) , which reads:
…And being part of that property devised to Sara [sic] L. McDowell in the will of James M. Smith, and being more commonly known as the South Asheville Cemetery.
1796: An Unnamed Woman
Daniel Smith (c1757-1824) was born in New Jersey and fought at the Battle of King’s Mountain. Around 1785, he settled with his wife, Mary Davidson Smith, in a log cabin near present-day Aston Park in Asheville. In 1787, they had a son, James M. Smith, who is rumored to have been the first non-native child born in WNC.
According to the 1790 census, the Smiths did not enslave anyone at that time.
Daniel Smith did, however, enslave at least one person prior to 1800. On April 2, 1796, he sold an unnamed woman to William Davidson along with horses, cattle, hogs, sheep, furniture, and farming utensils.
Image: A deed from 1796 showing the sale of “one negroe woman” from Daniel Smith to William Davidson, Buncombe County Register of Deeds, Page 3, Book 120
Next Slide: 1790 Burke County Census (Buncombe County was founded in 1791) showing that Daniel Smith did not enslave anyone at that time.
1801-1810: Cane and Ned
The US Census tells us that, in 1800, Daniel Smith enslaved one person and by 1810, he enslaved two people. They may be the same two boys–Cane, 12, and Ned, 9, who Smith purchased from Edmund Jones in April 1801 for 505 Spanish milled dollars.
It is possible that Cane or Ned passed away prior to the 1810 Census and that Daniel Smith began enslaving another two people; however, we have not found evidence to support that theory. So it seems likely that, in 1810, the South Asheville Cemetery had not yet been founded.
Next Slide: 1810 Census, Buncombe County
1820: 18 Unnamed People
By 1820, Daniel Smith enslaved 9 people. While the 1800 and 1810 census do not identify enslaved people by sex or age–and certainly not by name–the 1820 census identifies that in that year Daniel Smith enslaved:
- 2 males and 2 females under 14 years of age
- 1 male and 2 females between the ages of 14 and 25
- 0 people between the ages of 26 and 45*
- 1 male and 1 female over the age of 45
*At this time, Cane would have been around 31 years of age and Ned would have been about 28. If the census correctly enumerated the number of people that Daniel Smith enslaved, Cane and Ned have either passed away, are now enslaved by another person, or have gained their freedom. If either of the young men did pass away, it is possible that they could have been the first person laid to rest at South Asheville Cemetery.
Daniel’s son, James M. Smith (1787-1856), had enslaved one person in 1810, and now–like his father–enslaved 9 people:
- 3 males and 1 female under 14 years of age
- 1 male and 1 female between the ages of 14 and 25
- 1 male and 2 females between the ages of 26 and 45
- 0 people over the age of 45
Image: 1820 U.S. Census, Buncombe County, Daniel Smith
Next Slide: 1820 U.S. Census, Buncombe County, James M. Smith (enslaved people are enumerated to the right of the fold).
1821-1822: Bob, Nancy and Dick
In January 1821, James M. Smith purchased Bob from the estate of Michael Isreal.
In August 1822, James Smith began enslaving a woman named Nancy and two-year-old child named Dick, who was likely Nancy’s son.
“Caused the said negroe woman and child to be exposed to public sale to the highest bidder when and where James M. Smith became the highest and last bidder at the sum of $230 … have bargained and sold and delivered the said negroe woman Nancy and child Dick to the said James M. Smith and the said Henry Grady Sheriff do warrant the said Negroe woman Nancy and child Dick to the said James M. Smith his heirs and assigns forever…”
Image: Buncombe County Register of Deeds, Book 13/Page 107
Next Slide: Buncombe County Register of Deeds, Book 15/Page 195, Sept. 12, 1828
1828: Tom, Sukey, Robeson, Anderson, Matilda, Sam, Alise, Live, Campbell, Harrison, Zylpha
Daniel Smith died in 1824 and at that time appears to have held 10 or 11 people captive. They are named in his will and each it appears that five of Daniel’s children received a ⅕ share in each person, which would take effect upon their mother’s death.
Their names were: Tom, Sukey, Robeson, Anderson, Matilda, Sam, Alise, Live, Campbell, Harrison, Zylpha
A 1828 deed shows that James M. Smith, who had recently purchased much of his father’s former land holdings along the French Broad and Swannanoa Rivers from his brothers, also purchased his sister’s share of the above named people from her husband. It is possible that all 11 people were then enslaved by James Smith when his mother died in 1842.
Image: Daniel Smith gravestone
1827-1840: Lucy, 70 others
In 1827, James bought a 12-year-old girl named Lucy from William Hunter for $124.28. She is likely one of the people still enslaved by Smith in 1830.
In 1830, James M. Smith enslaved around 39 people and by 1840, he enslaved 70 people.
1844: Harriet, William, Luran, John, Quillan, Allen
On October 31, 1844, 35-year-old Harriet and her three children, William, Luran, and John are enslaved by Jacob R. Shuford, the son-in-law of James M. Smith. In order to help support the Shuford family after his daughter’s death in March 1844, James M. Smith paid Jacob $500.00 for Harriet, William, Luran, and John and then gave the family to the Shufords along with two young men, Quillan and Allen.
At this time, we do not know if Daniel Smith’s other children and their spouses, who enslaved people in Asheville, may have allowed the people they enslaved to be buried in the South Asheville Cemetery.
Images: (top) Bill of Sale, Harriet and her three children, William, Luran, and John, October 31, 1844 from Jacob R. Shuford to James M. Smith, Buncombe Co. Register of Deeds; (bottom) October 31, 1844, Buncombe Co. Register of Deeds
Next Slide: Excerpt from James M. Smith’s Last Will and Testament, 1850
On February 9, 1850, James M. Smith signed the first-known version of his Last Will and Testament. In it he accounts for, by name, at least 37 people whom he enslaved.
Their names were (in [ ] are the full names of individuals found through extensive research, click the button below to find out more about them):
Bob (the tanner) and his wife, Lidia, and their children [Bob and Lidia Smith and likely daughters July and Elizabeth “Lizzie”], Alexander Sy (the blacksmith), Bob Hardin, Catherine, Betsey, Mose, George (the shoemaker) and his wife, Louisa, and their child, William [George, Louisa, and William Morris], Caroline, Lidia’s daughter [Caroline Spears Cope], 4 unnamed girls, Miles (George’s son), Charles (George’s son), Alfred [Alfred Walker], Luran, Lucy Ann, Tom (the miller), Joe (the wagoner) and his wife, Tilda, and their children, Alfred, Joe, Mary, Jane, and Vina, Peter, Charles (Clara’s son), Robb, Caroline (Arsela’s daughter), Jeff and his wife, Mary, and their child, Samuel, Martha, Henry and (likely his wife), Julia Ann, and their children, McCama and George, Phillip
According to the 1850 census, conducted on October 9, 1850, James M. Smith enslaved 66 people, including 22 of whom are listed as being enslaved by his agent, A. Teague. It is possible that the 37 people named in his will are only the people not under the supervision of Teague and include the 4 girls and 2-3 children of Bob and Lidia, who are unnamed.
1850: The First-Known Deaths
The 1850 mortality schedules in Buncombe County identify four people who died between March and May 1850 while enslaved by James M. Smith or William W. McDowell. (McDowell had married Smith’s daughter Sarah in 1846.) Two of them had likely been mentioned in Smith’s 1850 will and two had not yet been born.
The 1850 mortality schedules report the following individuals:
- A 12-year-old girl, unnamed, born in North Carolina, and enslaved by James Smith, died in March 1850 from a tumor in her hip that she had suffered from for the past year.
- A 2-year-old unnamed little girl, enslaved by W.W. McDowell and born in North Carolina, died in April 1850 of Whooping Cough after being sick for 10 days.
- Two babies, a 10-day-old little boy and a 1-day-old little girl, died in May 1850 after being born prematurely.
It is possible that the unnamed 12-year-old girl was the first person laid to rest in the South Asheville Cemetery.
Image: 1850 Mortality Schedules, Buncombe County
1850 - 1854: Tilda and Bob
Even before his father’s death in 1824, James M. Smith had begun to acquire land and enslaved people. By 1840, James M. Smith enslaved 70 people and owned much of the land in Buncombe County.
In 1850, he enslaved 66 people, meaning that in the intervening decade, at least four people were either sold, given their freedom, or passed away. It is unlikely that they were given their freedom based on an excerpt from Smith’s 1850 will.
In his will, James M. Smith wrote,
“My old man, Phillip, has long been a faithful servant and useful to myself and family, I direct no labor be required of him, but that he be allowed to live with my wife or my son, John P. Smith, as he prefers, and as the law requires that he must have an owner, I give him as the property of my son, John P. , in confidence that he will take care of him and protect him, and I give and bequeath to Phillip twenty-five dollars per annum as long as he lives for his comfort, to be paid out of my estate. If the legacy cannot legally take effect directly to him, I leave it to be paid to John P. Smith having a confidence that he will faithfully apply it as here intended.”
It seems likely that at least one person passed away prior to Smith’s 1850 will and that with their death the cemetery was founded. However, the next recorded deaths we have found are of Tilda and Bob between 1850 and 1854.
Image: James M. Smith will, excerpt, quoted above, February 9, 1850
In 1850, a woman named Tilda was enslaved by the Smiths. It is likely that she and her family were held captive on the grounds of what is now known as the Smith-McDowell House. They may have also been enslaved at the Smith’s primary residence on South Main Street in downtown Asheville or in one of Smith’s many business ventures.
Tilda was married to Joe, a wagoner. It is likely that Joe transported goods in a horse-drawn wagon on a daily basis, perhaps transporting tanbark to the Smiths’ tannery.
Joe and Tilda had at least five children by 1850 – Alfred, age 11; Joe, age 8; Mary, age 3; Jane, age 2; and Vina; age 1. It is likely that the family was able to avoid being separated until c1853 when Tilda passed away.
Her cause of death is unknown, but she was likely only in her late 20s or early 30s when she died. Tilda’s family may have buried their wife and mother in the South Asheville Cemetery c1853.
Click the arrow to the right to find out more.
In 1856, upon the death of James M. Smith, Joe and his children were willed to James’ son, John, along with Buck House. If they were not yet living on the Smith-McDowell House property, it is likely that they were now.
However, when John died in 1857 without leaving a will, Joe, Sr. and his children, Alfred, Joe, Mary, and Vina were sold on the steps of the Buncombe County courthouse to the highest bidder in August 1858.
Joe, Sr. was sold for $501 to Marcus Erwin, a lawyer, state senator, editor of the Asheville News, and ardent secessionist.
Alfred, 19, was sold for $1,275 to G.T. Spears – John’s brother-in-law.
Joe, Jr., 16, was sold for $1,181 to J. Zachary.
Mary, 11, and Vina, 9, were sold to A.W. Cumming for $822 and $795 respectively.
Jane was unaccounted for.
At this time, we only know that Bob was enslaved by the Smiths and passed away prior to January 7, 1854, because James M. Smith notes this in the 1854 codicil to his original 1850 will.
There were at least three men enslaved by the family named Bob. In Smith’s 1850 will, he mentions a man named Robb as well as a man named “Bob Hardin” or two men named “Bob” and “Hardin” and another man named Bob, who was a tanner, and was married to Lydia. Based on our research, we believe that the Bob who worked as a tanner survived to see the end of slavery. (Click the button below to learn more about Bob and Lydia’s family.)
However, we believe that the Bob that passed away prior to 1854 is the same man as “Robb” in Smith’s 1850 will because Smith indicates in 1854 that Robb would be inherited by Smith’s son, John. Smith also mentions this in writing about Bob’s death.
It is possible that Bob/Robb was the first burial in what would become the South Asheville Cemetery.
Facing the Rising Sun
If Tilda and Bob are buried in what is now the South Asheville Cemetery, their locations are unknown and were likely marked with only a field stone. The graves in the cemetery are all oriented east to west, so that the deceased faced the rising sun; which potentially began with the cemetery’s first burial and is typical of Christian burial traditions.
Also, we know from later land deeds that the cemetery only covered about a quarter of an acre until at least 1890, so we can likely narrow the locations of their graves to the initial ¼ acre portion of the cemetery.
1853-1856: Polly and James Smith Die
James M. Smith wrote the January 1854 codicil to his will because less than a month earlier, on December 11, 1853, his wife Mary “Polly” Patton Smith died, just shy of her 60th birthday.
James died a few years later on May 18, 1856. Both James and Polly were buried near the Smith-McDowell House on a hilltop that is now home to Fernihurst mansion. Around 1875, the Smith family exhumed James and Polly and reinterred them in the Newton Academy Cemetery so that the cemetery land could be sold to pay off debts.
Still, James’ and Polly’s double gravestones (at right) and lengthy inscriptions stand in stark contrast to the unengraved field stones likely marking the graves of burials made in the South Asheville Cemetery during the same period.
Image (below): 2021 Map of location of the Smith-McDowell House relative to the two burial locations of the Smiths (Fernihurst and Newton Academy) and the South Asheville Cemetery.
A Note on Medical Care
After James Smith’s death in 1856, his accounts were settled by his son-in-law. Smith owed $201.30 to his doctor for medical care over the last year and a half. And while much of the treatment is for medicines and house calls for himself and his family–the doctor charged $3.00 for coming out to the house in the rain on the day Smith died–some of the costs are for treatments for the people James enslaved, especially for sick children, who are unnamed.
On April 14, 1856, the doctor did visit the house at night to attend to an enslaved woman named Mary at a charge of $1.50. He visited Mary again on the 20th and 21st. It was certainly in Smith’s financial interest to keep the people he enslaved healthy.
Image (at left): 1855-1856, William Wallace McDowell Collection, UNC Special Collections
After James Smith’s death, his daughter, Sarah Lucinda Smith McDowell and her husband
William inherited the land on which the South Asheville Cemetery is located.
It appears that the South Asheville Cemetery is located at the top right hand corner
of the 1887 plat of the McDowells’ land (below) just off what is labeled the “old road.”
1856-1865: The McDowells
Sarah Lucinda Smith was 20 when she married 23-year-old William Wallace McDowell in 1846. When Sarah’s father, James Smith, died in 1856, the McDowells inherited the land that now contains the South Asheville Cemetery.
A year later, after Sarah’s brother, John, died without a will, she and her husband purchased John’s farm and house at auction–now known as the Smith-McDowell House–and the family soon moved to live in the brick mansion full time. By 1860, they enslaved 40 people.
Image (at right): Highland Messenger, July 24, 1846
Image (above): William and Sarah Smith McDowell
In 1850, the McDowell family enslaved 11 people–six males (ages 5, 5, 8, 8, 9, and 30) and 5 females (ages 2, 7, 14, 25, and 35).
In 1860, the McDowell family enslaved 40 people–21 males (ages 4 months, 1, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11, 11, 11, 11, 16, 20, 22, 23, 24, 27, 40, 40, 41, 56, and 63) and 19 females (ages 4 months, 3, 5, 6, 7, 7, 8, 13, 14, 16, 19, 22, 35, 42, 48, 50, 52, 58, 65).
So far we have only been able to identify five of the people who were enslaved by the McDowells by name. Enslaved people were only enumerated by age, sex, and skin color on the 1850 and 1860 US Census, Slave Schedules. All five survived to see the end of slavery in 1865.
Their names were George Avery, Ben Ragsdale, and Rebecca and James Bailey and their daughter Charlotte Bailey Scales. We believe all but one of them (Charlotte) were buried in the South Asheville Cemetery after 1880.
Image (at left): 1850 Slave Schedules, US Census, Buncombe County, W.W. McDowell
In 1865, George Avery was a 19-year-old blacksmith enslaved by the McDowell family.
McDowell family stories say that George was freed by William McDowell in April 1865. McDowell, a Confederate officer, realized the Confederacy was going to fall, so he allegedly advised Avery and several other men to join the Union Army so that they could claim a pension after the war.
However, we also know that at least 40 enslaved people emancipated themselves and joined the liberating army when the army left Asheville and marched to Greeneville, TN. It is likely that George Avery was one of these men. George joined the Company D, 40 Division, US Colored Troops, on April 29, 1865, and signed his volunteer enlistment papers with an “X”.
Scroll right to learn more about George Avery’s strong connection to the South Asheville Cemetery.
Image (at left): George Avery’s enlistment papers in the Union Army, April 29, 1865, Greeneville, TN
At this stage in our research we don’t know exactly where George was born. His death certificate lists Marion; his army papers list Asheville. His marriage license indicates that his parents names were Betsy and Alfred Avery.
Near Marion, in 1860, there was one man–WW Avery–who enslaved at least twenty people. We consider that he could have been George’s (or George’s mother’s) enslaver because they share the same last name. WW Avery was also the executor of the estate of James McDowell, the father of William Wallace McDowell.
Though we don’t know much about George’s childhood–where he was born, if he was separated from his parents or siblings, if he was sold or inherited–we can assume that he likely trained under another enslaved blacksmith and performed this work daily while held captive by the McDowell family.
Image (at left): George Avery’s death certificate
1865: A Public Cemetery
Burials continued at South Asheville after 1865 when the cemetery became open to the public. Though most burials were associated with the congregants of two local churches – St. John “A” Baptist and what was known at the time as the South Asheville AME Zion Methodist Church – and the surrounding community, it was not limited to them. Any African-American person could be buried in the South Asheville Cemetery.
On his return from the war, the McDowells are said to have given George Avery land and lumber with which to build a house and appointed him caretaker of the South Asheville Cemetery. (However, based on land deeds registered with the Buncombe County Register of Deeds, it appears that George Avery was not given legal title to any of the McDowells’ land until 1890, at which time he paid $110 for a small tract near the South Asheville Cemetery.)
The family of the deceased would pay George Avery to dig a grave. Avery would also collect a fee of one dollar that would be given to the McDowells, who still owned the land.
Avery dug graves and looked after the cemetery until his own death in 1938 at the age of 94. He was buried in the South Asheville Cemetery. His grave is marked with an upright military gravestone for his Civil War service.
Image (at left): Deed from McDowells to trustees of the AME Zion Church, October 11, 1890, Buncombe County Register of Deeds, Book 73/509
Images (above): George Avery in 1917 at age 71, George Avery’s gravestone in the South Asheville Cemetery, 2020
Image (next page): Application for George Avery’s headstone, 1938
1890: Cemetery Transfer
It was not until 1890 that the McDowells officially transferred a .25-acre tract of land to George Avery and other trustees of the AME Zion Methodist Episcopal Church “to be used as a Cemetery for Colored people” for $10. Though this is the first official documentation we have found that recognizes the land as a cemetery, there are a few gravestones which note a death date prior to 1890.
It is also likely that many of the early members of the South Asheville community had previously been enslaved by the Smith and McDowell families. Around the same time that the McDowell family transferred the cemetery, they also began selling – or at least formalizing the sale of – residential lands around the cemetery to the same men who are listed as trustees of the AME Church – like George Avery, Ben Ragsdale, and Lazarus Clayton. It is possible that the bonds of friendship and family in the early South Asheville community may have developed prior to emancipation.
And even after the transfer of the cemetery to the South Asheville community, it appears that Sarah McDowell continued to collect burial fees. This is likely because as the original .25 acre plot filled, burials continued outside of its boundaries onto McDowell land, eventually filling 2 acres that it does today.
The Bailey Family
James Bailey and Rebecca Greenlee met while enslaved in Burke County, North Carolina. The young couple married in 1842 when Rebecca was 16 and James was 26. The couple had at least seven children that survived to adulthood, including a girl named Charlotte, who was born around 1850.
At some point between 1850 and 1854, Rebecca and Charlotte were sold to James M. Smith in Asheville.
Scroll right to learn more about this family’s connection to the South Asheville Cemetery.
Pre-1865: Held in Bondage
“…I give to the said Sarah L [Smith McDowell] a negro woman Rebecca and her child Charlotte which I purchased of William W. McDowell [Sarah’s husband] and placed in her possession….” – James M. Smith will, 1854
Rebecca and Charlotte Bailey were first enslaved by the Smiths; though it appears they were forced to serve the McDowell family. Upon James Smith’s death, the mother and daughter were inherited by the McDowells.
1866: Cohabitation Records
The Baileys, like other enslaved people in Asheville, were freed from bondage in April 1865.
A year later, Rebecca, and her husband, James, filed a cohabitation record for legal recognition of their 42-year marriage.
1870: The First Census
Though the 1870 US census was not the first census, it was the first to include formerly enslaved people by name.
In 1870, Rebecca Baley (44) is married to James Baley (54) and they have six people living in their Asheville household – four that are likely their children – Charlotte, 20, Alcy, 13, Pink, 11, Ellen, 5 and two others – Ziepha Smith, 70, and Lewis Smith, 75 – perhaps the parents of Rebecca or James or even an older sibling and their spouse.
They were all born in North Carolina.
James was a brick mason and Rebecca was “keeping house.” Charlotte is the only other person in the household with employment; she was working out of the house as a “House Domestic.”
At 20 years old in 1870, Charlotte would have been born c1850 – which would have made her 3 or 4 years old when James M. Smith wrote the codicil to his will.
1880: The Next Census
In 1880, James (65) and Rebecca (56) Bailey still lived in Asheville. Their son James (21) and daughter Pink (18) lived in the house along with Charlotte (30) who may have been widowed. Listed as the nieces and nephews of James and Rebecca Bailey were Walter Scales (6), Rebecca Scales (4), and Mary Scales (25). Also in the house was Ellen Smith (15) the grand child of James and Rebecca and George Pearson (9), who is listed as adopted.
James Sr. was still working as a brick mason and Charlotte was working as a cook.
1883: Land from the McDowells
In 1884, William and Sarah L McDowell sold 11.25 acres to James Bailey for $300.
“This Deed made this third day of November 1884 by W.W. McDowell and his wife Sarah L. McDowell at Buncombe County and State of North Carolina of the first part to James Bailey of Buncombe County and State of North Carolina of the second part, Witnesseth that said W.W. + S.L. McDowell in consideration of Three Hundred Dollars to them paid by James Bailey, the reciept of which to hereby acknowledged hath bargained and sold and by the presents do bargain sell and convey to said James Bailey and his heirs all the right title … and estate of the party of the first part in and to a tract of land in Buncombe County – Sate of No Carolina adjoing the lands of Mrs. EA Smith Erwin and others … containing 11 1/4 acres….”
1890: James Bailey Dies
He is laid to rest in the South Asheville Cemetery. His is one of less than 100 graves that have an engraved marker.
JAMES BAILEY, SR.
Feb. 17, 1890
The Lord that made Heaven
and Earth bless thee out of
[Psalm 134:3, King James]
1892: Charlotte's Land Auctioned
On April 26, 1889, James and Rebecca Bailey sold a tract of land to their daughter, Charlotte Scales, for $5. This parcel adjoined “the lands of James Bailey Jr. and others” and was one acre in size. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, the Baileys gave 1 acre tracts to each of their children. In 1892, the family even gave a 20-foot-wide right of way to create a public street through their property – which became McDowell Street.
However, when Charlotte could not pay her property taxes, her parcel was sold at auction. The highest bidder was Sarah L. Smith McDowell.
“…on the 1st day of August 1892 Charlotte Scales executed and delivered…a certain deed of trust conveying…the lands and premises therein…and whereas deafult was made in the conditions of the said deed of trust…in compliance with the demands of the said…trust, advertised said land according to law and in accordance with the terms of the said deed of trust, and sold the parcel at public auction at the Court House door in the City of Asheville, County of Buncombe and State of North Carolina on the 20th day of July, 1896, for cash, when and where said Mrs. Sarah L. McDowell became the last and highest bidder; And whereas the said Mrs. Sarah L. McDowell has complied with her said bid, and has paid….the sum of Two hundred and sixty dollars.”
On April 19, 1905, in New York City, Charlotte Scales passed away. Widowed and listed as 40 years old, Charlotte’s parents’ names were James J. Bailey and Rebecca Greenly. Charlotte was buried at Evergreen Cemetery in New York.
It appears that Charlotte left North Carolina for New York City sometime during the winter of 1902-1903. It is possible that Charlotte moved to New York after her mother passed away. Rebecca may be buried at the South Asheville Cemetery. If she is, her grave does not have an engraved marker.
On April 3, 1912, the 11.25 acres purchased by James Bailey from the McDowells was sold at public auction due to unpaid taxes by Bailey’s heirs. It was purchased by C.B. Justice for $6.00.
After 1900: Memories
After the turn of the 20th century, we can begin to rely less on official government records and learn more about the cemetery from the recollections of people who lived in the community and had friends and family buried there thanks to a 1989 oral history project archived at UNCA. The information that follows is from those interviewed during the project unless otherwise noted.
After Sarah McDowell’s death in 1905 a cemetery board was created by the Baptist and AME churches to collect burial fees from those who were not church members. Fees ranged from $75-85 with an additional $15 paid to the gravedigger. Some families would dig graves themselves to save money. South Asheville was less expensive than other cemeteries for African Americans at the time which charged at least $115 for a burial.
It is possible that the McDowell family continued to employ the gravedigger and collect fees until the cemetery closed.
Most families carried burial insurance to ensure that they could properly bury their family members. People who could not afford a burial were generally buried in the Potter’s Field at Riverside Cemetery, which – though it was open to both Black and white people – maintained segregated burial plots.
There is some evidence that if a family could not afford a grave that the McDowell family would grant them a free grave.
Image: St. John “A” Baptist Church
Coffins in the cemetery were generally made of pine, but a few were made of more expensive metal. George Gibson remembered in a 1985 interview in the Asheville Citizen Times, “When people were poor, they were buried in baskets. Others had simple wooden boxes.”
After the funeral, the grave was marked by the funeral home with a tin marker that could later be replaced by a gravestone if the family could afford one. The family was also responsible for dressing the body and many people would save their best clothing to be buried in. People were also often buried wearing their best jewelry and/or their wedding ring.
1913: Death Certificates
Burials in the cemetery appear to have increased dramatically after 1915. Though Buncombe County kept a death register beginning in 1898, death certificates were not required to be filed with the deeds office until 1913. According to Linda Brown’s publication on the cemetery (2021), there are 2,215 death certificates which list South Asheville as the burial location between 1915 and 1943.
Many of the graves date to the 1918 flu epidemic when sometimes 4-5 graves were dug every day. According to Richard Houston who helped his foster father, George Avery, dig graves during the flu epidemic. “They were sick today and dead tomorrow. People were dying like flies.”
Image: Death certificate excerpts indicating burial at South Asheville
1939: Closed to Burials
The cemetery closed to burials in 1939. There are conflicting reports as to why.
South Asheville and the cemetery were annexed into the City of Asheville in the late 1920s. George Avery died in 1938 and the cemetery was condemned by the City of Asheville in 1939 and part was taken over by eminent domain. When they did this, the city said that the cemetery was at capacity and cited an ordinance against burials within the city limits.
But perhaps these reasons were merely excuses. Many South Asheville residents felt the move to prevent further burials occurred because the city and the neighboring Kenliworth community wanted to expand development around – and potentially into – the cemetery.
Image: Newspaper clipping from a January 22, 1929, issue of Asheville Citizen noting the City of Asheville’s intention to annex Kenliworth and South Asheville into the city.
1943: The Last Burial
There were a few burials after the cemetery closed.
To our knowledge, Robert C. Watkins was the last person buried there – in 1943.
Watkins was a cook in the Navy who was killed serving his country during the second world war. He was only 33 years old. (11/7/1909-2/24/1943) It seems that he was able to be buried at South Asheville because he had a family plot in the cemetery. This also appears to be true for others who were laid to rest at South Asheville after it closed.
Image: Newspaper clipping from a March 2, 1943, issue of Asheville Citizen noting the death of Robert Watkins, a cook in the navy.
1940s: A Community Effort
Despite the closing of the cemetery and annexation of the neighborhood into the city limits, the South Asheville community continued to thrive and had homes, businesses, churches, groceries, small stores, a beer garden, a school, and an Odd Fellows Lodge within its boundaries.
After the cemetery closed, upkeep became a community effort. The ministers at the AME and Baptist churches would announce the date of a clean-up during the service, and everyone would come out to help. Women would generally prepare food and drink, and men would do the physical labor of maintaining the cemetery. Families would also come out throughout the year to clean and decorate the plots of their ancestors, but slowly as people moved away and elders died out, the locations of graves and their occupants were forgotten, especially without new burials in the family plots.
Image (above): Newspaper clipping from a July 30, 1922, issue of The Charlotte Observer noting that the South Asheville school will be three stories and made of brick.
Image (at left): Newspaper clipping from a November 1, 1950, issue of Asheville Citizen noting that the South Asheville School site had been sold to St. John “A” Baptist Church.
But at one time, many decorations could be found throughout the cemetery. One particular custom was to place favorite or treasured objects on gravesites – a vase for flowers or a child’s favorite toy.
Sadly, the cemetery was not immune to vandalism. One South Asheville resident on their way to visit their sister’s grave recalled seeing a white woman on horseback carrying a vase that looked familiar. When they arrived at their sister’s grave they found that the family heirloom vase that they had placed on her grave was gone.
And unfortunately this was not the worst of the grave desecration that occurred after the cemetery was closed to new burials. Scroll right for more.
Image (at left): South Asheville Cemetery, 2020
1956: Robert Watkins
In 1956, city police investigated an open grave in the cemetery that had been reported by a neighboring property owner. The box that held the casket was exposed and the headstone overturned. Police investigated to see if the casket had been opened or removed. The headstone to the grave was reported in the Asheville Citizen as belonging to Robert C. Walker, presumably a misprint for Robert C. Watkins.
Image (at left): Newspaper clipping from an April 5, 1956, issue of Asheville Citizen noting a open grave at the South Asheville Cemetery.
Then on Halloween 1958, local teenagers – approximately “30 white youths” buried a teenage boy in a sunken grave in the cemetery. An article in the Asheville Citizen that was published two weeks after the incident read, “At the cemetery the boys had undermined a sunken grave, excavating a shallow space beneath a concrete slab to permit room for their victim, who was pushed head first into the opening. A heavy tombstone taken from the grave was lowered over the aperture, leaving the boy sealed in the musty chamber.” He was in there for several hours while the boys sat around nearby eating and listening to his calls for help. The police chief told the boys at the time that they could be charged with trespassing or kidnaping if they did it again. Their excuse – “We thought it was fun.”
But presumably the newspaper piece created enough public outcry to force the police chief’s hand, and within two days of the article being published six boys were arrested on charges of assault and damaging graves. Ultimately, three of the boys were sentenced – they had to each pay a $10 fine for “injuring graves.”
The police chief said that “his office had conferred with the City Health Department relative to the condition of the graves in the cemetery…and was told that steps will be taken to improve the site.” Whether there was any follow-up is unclear.
Image (at left): Newspaper clipping from a November 12, 1958, issue of Asheville Citizen noting a Halloween “prank” at the South Asheville Cemetery.
The cemetery came back into the public eye in the early 1980s, as many of Asheville’s urban renewal projects were coming to a close, when a developer became interested in building a condominium complex near the cemetery.
Both the Kenliworth and South Asheville neighborhoods lobbied against the complex, some organizers using the potential encroachment on the cemetery as a talking point, but the city greenlit the project and several graves were exhumed and moved according to Augusta Young, one of the founders of the South Asheville Cemetery Association. The condos were never built – and years later investors in the project sued the developer for fraud, conspiracy, and breach of contract.
But the controversy surrounding the condos did create some positive change. The threat to the cemetery and the potential for future similar threats became the impetus for the founding of the South Asheville Cemetery Association, which was incorporated in 1981 to protect, maintain, and document the cemetery.
At the same time, the City of Asheville and the McDowell family heirs deeded the remaining portions of the cemetery to the association. In 2004, Asheville’s Historic Resources Commission recognized the cemetery as a local historic landmark and the association is now on track to have the area designated as a national historic site.
Image (at left): August 19, 1981 deed transferring the cemetery to the South Asheville Cemetery Association
Image (above): Article from the March 30, 2000 issue of the Asheville Citizen-Times about the work needed to maintain the cemetery.
The South Asheville Cemetery Association coordinates volunteer activities related to the maintenance of the cemetery, while it works to promote the cemetery as a site of spiritual and historical value.
To find out more about the South Asheville Cemetery, to donate or volunteer, click the link below.
Image (below): Photograph from the May 8, 2014 issue of the Asheville Citizen-Times of Warren Wilson College students clearing the cemetery of downed trees.
This exhibit was funded in part by: