By Jesse Wood
Sunday’s dedication of the monument marking the historic black cemetery off of Howard Street in Boone caps a multi-year effort by the Junaluska Heritage Association to honor the gravesite of more than 160 African Americans.
Collaborating on this project and the dedication were the Town of Boone, Boone’s Historic Preservation Commission, Appalachian State University and the Junaluska Heritage Association, an organization formed to preserve the heritage of the only African American community in Watauga County.
Boone Mayor Rennie Brantz described the evolution of this historic black cemetery and its recent integration with the adjacent white cemetery a “pivotal” moment for the Town of Boone.
Brantz’ speech at the dedication on Sunday noted that the town and its community members have “recovered and discovered” the town’s past through similar historical projects like this cemetery dedication, the ginseng marker on King Street and the restoration of the Appalachian Theatre, the post office and the Jones House, all of which are in downtown Boone.
“From this whole process, we learned a whole more about our community and our town,” Brantz said. “I think it’s helped make us a whole community. It deepens our identity of the Boone community and it enriches and expands our understanding of who we are and where we came from.”
In 2014, the Junaluska Heritage Association requested that Boone’s Historic Preservation Commission – and in turn the Boone Town Council – assist in protecting and preserving the black section of the old Councill Memorial Cemetery.
At the time, the main entrance to the white section of the cemetery was adorned with a black iron gate between two stone pillars and the entire white section was fenced. Upon walking through the white section, a chain link fence separated the black cemetery, which featured two headstones. This area was a grassy field that essentially rolled toward Brown Street.
In requesting assistance in 2014, Roberta Jackson of the Junaluska Heritage Association wrote, “The cemetery is adjacent to Appalachian State University and students and others have been observed sunbathing on the property, using the field as a place for pet dogs to relieve themselves, and as a burial ground for pets. Tombstones have been moved, removed or toppled in the past.”
She added that much of the black section is on land governed by white trustees.
The Boone Town Council agreed to investigate the ownership of the land, secure permission to place signage marking the property as a historical cemetery and also note that defacing and desecrating gravesites was a criminal act. Today, the town now manages the cemetery and more improvements are scheduled.
Eric Plaag, chair of the Historic Preservation Commission and a historical consultant, was tasked with researching who owned the five plots of land that made up the cemetery. He recounted more than 150 years of history at the dedication.
“Sometime before the American Civil War, Benjamin Councill Sr. began laying out graves on this hillside for white members of his and related families. It is likely he did the same for the people he enslaved. Setting their graves apart from his family as was the custom at the time,” Plaag said at the dedication.
Plaag said that after the war, the division of the gravesites continued with the white bodies buried to the west and black bodies buried to the east. The first reference of the black section of the cemetery that he could find during his research was in an obituary about Beverly Williams in 1918 in the Watauga Democrat.
In 1956, burials of blacks ceased at this cemetery when Watauga County deeded two acres of land for a new cemetery at the Clarissa Hills Cemetery off of Westview Heights Drive.
“Within 15 years by the 1970s, the trustees of the Boone City Cemetery, which cared only for the white section, had erected a chain link fence around the white section, further amplifying the division between the two sections,” Plaag said. “For a time, there wasn’t even a gate to move between the two sections.”
Boone Town Manager John Ward noted that the Town of Boone appropriated $100,000 for the cemetery during last year’s budget. This funded major tree work, a retaining wall to prevent erosion and the removal of the fence dividing the white and black section of the cemetery.
“This is probably one of my most proud moments in Boone as I came up and personally got to tear down that fence,” Ward said.
Ward noted that an aluminum fence will later be installed around the entire cemetery’s perimeter and that the town’s cultural resources department will focus on education and interpretation.
Roberta Jackson with the Junaluska Heritage Association gave thanks to all of those who supported this project. She mentioned Dr. Andrea Burns and her class, Dr. Susan Keefe and Dr. Tom Whyte for their research into the old Councill Cemetery.
She thanked Eric Plaag for his findings, Sandy Hagler for her collection of oral history and Kate Johnson and App State’s ACT (Appalachian and the Community Together) organization, which raised $3,000 for this project. And, of course, everyone supporting the Junaluska Heritage Association.
“I hope I haven’t missed anybody because there are so many people that we really could thank,” Jackson said.
The marker names 65 known individuals and also honors 100 other individuals buried in the black cemetery that are unknown. Sonar equipment was used to map out the coordinates of the graves.