Probably the most historically significant African American graveyard in Greensboro is the Union Cemetery, which is located on South Elm St.
Here you can find the final resting places of many of the City’s most prominent African American residents from the late 19th and early 20th centuries — men like Harmon Unthank, Rev. Matthew Alston, Aaron Mendenhall, Rev. Peter F. Malloy, and Dr. J.C. Waddy.
But sadly, many of the burials at Union Cemetery are unmarked. This is even true in the case of Unthank, despite the fact that he is remembered as the most prominent figure in the history of the important African American community of Warnersville, which was established in Greensboro with assistance from the Quaker Friends shortly after the Civil War.
And when you look down the barren slope in the rear of the graveyard, it’s easy to imagine that there may well be many dozens of other unmarked graves in Union Cemetery.
The relative absence of tombstones at this historic Greensboro graveyard is apparently not an unusual circumstance among African American cemeteries. For researchers working on an African American graveyard in Boone, North Carolina, located adjacent to Appalachian State University’s campus, have been equally struck by the lack of marked burials in the black section of the town’s cemetery. Perhaps many black families simply could not afford expensive headstones for their deceased relatives.
But investigators in Boone have at least arrived at a partial solution. In two surveys conducted since 2007, they have utilized ground-penetrating radar (GPR) and an electrical resistivity system in order to identify disturbed soil which could indicate the presence of graves. Though work is still not complete, anomalies located so far suggest the presence of as many as sixteen unidentified burials. The work is being conducted by staff and students with the University’s Geology Department.
Would it not be neat if GPR or a similar technology could be employed to identify unmarked graves at Greensboro’s Union Cemetery?
Use of such tools is certainly becoming more commonplace. In addition to the work being conducted in Boone, late last year ground penetrating radar and electrical resistivity were used to survey the largely unmarked African American section of the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery (where football fans attending games at Kenan Stadium used to carelessly park), and this article reports on additional plans to use GPR in a survey of still another African American graveyard in Chapel Hill.
If you’re interested in researching old graveyards here in Greensboro, you may find any of the following works useful: Guilford County Cemeteries, edited by Mary A. Browning; The City of Greensboro Municipal Cemeteries: Forest Lawn Cemetery, Green Hill Cemetery, Maple Wood Cemetery, compiled by Bradley R. Foley; or Family Burying Grounds and Abandoned Church Cemeteries in Guilford County, N.C. and Immediate Environs by O. Norris & Rebecca H. Smith. You’ll find other books on local cemeteries in Greensboro Public Library’s N.C. and genealogy collections.
It’s also possible to search interments at Greensboro’s municipal cemeteries in a database which can be linked here.
As for research on Greensboro’s African American community, try Otis Hairston’s Picturing Greensboro: Four Decades of African American Community or William Chaffe’s Civilities and Civil Rights.