By Lauren Stepp
As a 12-year-old boy attending the South Asheville School for Blacks, George Gibson dug graves.
“If there was a two o’clock funeral, we’d be out there at five in the morning with a pick and shovel,” says Gibson, a rail-thin man in his late 80s. “And if they didn’t have nobody to carry bodies, we’d do that too.”
Years before the Civil Rights Movement would find its way to Asheville, racial disparities followed colored folks to the grave. From the mid-1800s to 1943, some 2,000 blacks were buried in the South Asheville Cemetery, a public, two-acre stretch adjacent to the African- American schoolhouse. Because many black families could not afford to buy a headstone, all but 93 graves went unmarked.
Though Gibson has no relatives in the plot, he was familiar with 80 percent of the men, women and children who came to rest in what is now considered Western North Carolina’s oldest known African-American cemetery. “I seen people be buried over the years, but as time went on, families forgot about the graves,” says Gibson, describing the tired, careworn state of the cemetery in the late 1980s.
He began a one-man restoration project in 1986, using shears to cut back growth and a rake to uncover headstones. George Taylor, an elder at St. John “A” Baptist Church, joined him soon after, working tirelessly until his death in 2016.
Warren Wilson College professor Jeff Keith says the cemetery’s narrative could be told as the story of three Georges: George Gibson, George Taylor and George Avery. Avery, a slave owned by William Wallace McDowell, maintained the plot well into the early 20th century, returning to Buncombe County after joining Company D, 40th United States Colored Troops, in 1865.
Gibson, who knew Avery, recalls the South Asheville Cemetery being one of the few places where blacks could afford to be buried. “Mr. McDowell charged $7 per grave site, and if a person couldn’t pay for it, he’d give it to them anyways,” says Gibson.
According to Keith, whose students and colleagues have been involved with restoration efforts since 1982, South Asheville Cemetery’s upkeep, or lack thereof, indicates the scale of the place. “Mr. Gibson remembers that, at least on one occasion, he and his fellow gravediggers accidentally exhumed a grave while trying to bury another person,” says Keith. “This demonstrates the density of the graveyard. Nearly 2,000 people are buried in the two-acre South Asheville Cemetery, and that’s five times the density of gravesites in Asheville’s Riverside Cemetery.”
He continues: “African Americans have been part of Appalachia’s history, yet we have few places to reflect on the contributions [they] have made in the region.”
Gibson, who is blind, can no longer remove debris or build fences. But he still comes out to the two-acre plot, some days to cheer on workday efforts and others to take in the quiet history of it all.
“Being in this community my whole life, I wanted the cemetery to be like it was when I was growing up,” he says. “These volunteers are picking up where I left off.”
The restoration of South Asheville Cemetery has involved thousands, including volunteers from Warren Wilson College, UNC Asheville, AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps teams and the Asheville community at large. For more information on how to join their efforts, visit southashevillecemetery.net.