Reclaiming a community treasure

Appalachian research, community support culminate in marker at African-American cemetery

About 50 people gathered for the unveiling of a historic marker at the Old Boone Cemetery on Sunday, Oct. 1. The cemetery contains the graves of over 160 African-Americans which had laid nearly forgotten in the open field behind Appalachian State University's Cone Residence Hall.

"We were thrilled with the marker. One of the main goals of the project was that we would let people know that the cemetery was there," said local resident and alumna Roberta Jackson '91, who has relatives buried there. "There were people there that needed to be reverenced. That's their burial site."

Jackson is a founding member of the Junaluska Heritage Association, which led the project to place the marker on site. She said she was impressed with the work of students and professors at Appalachian's Department of Geology (now called Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences) and Department of Anthropology, who used ground-penetrating radar and an electrical resistivity system to confirm the location of the African-American graves in the cemetery in 2007 and 2010. Before their work, only two well-marked graves could be identified.

The Junaluska Heritage Association works to preserve the only remaining African-American community in Watauga County. Jackson said that the $5,000 raised for the marker was embraced by individuals, Appalachian students and community organizations. 

The marker lists the names of 65 people researchers have discovered were interred there. But, Jackson said, the cemetery has importance beyond those buried there – it is a community treasure.

"We want people to recognize us in the African-American community and our contributions to the town of Boone," she said. "We have a lot of people in our community who graduated from App State.

Jackson earned her bachelor's degree in elementary education and retired in 2007 as an administrative assistant in the university's Physical Plant. She said there are many ties between her organization and the university. Students were active in the effort to raise money for the marker.

Jaelyn Felder, an Appalachian senior from Columbia, South Carolina, and president of the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC), said raising money for the project was a way for the council to repay the Junaluska community for its enthusiastic attendance at NPHC events through the years.

"For years the members of the Junaluska community have supported NPHC's growth and prosperity on campus," she said. "Also, we have members within our council who are from this community as well."

The project took a major step forward in 2014 when the Junaluska Heritage Association asked the Historic Preservation Commission of the Town of Boone to help improve conditions in the cemetery. The town took ownership of both the black and white sections of the cemetery in 2016. The town put in a retaining wall, cleared vegetation and commissioned another survey of the site with ground-penetrating radar that discovered 164 unmarked graves.

The cemetery had its beginnings as a burying ground for African-Americans enslaved by a local landowner, Jordan Councill. Through the years, the tombstones deteriorated or were moved and only four markers were left. Many early graves had only flat rocks as markers, and those had disappeared.