Restoring one of city’s oldest graveyards
Wilkins Cemetery is one of Dunn’s oldest burial grounds, consumed by time and the woods around it.
It’s taken years of hard labor from volunteers to free its graves from the brambles, vines, briars and shrubs that have overtaken the hallowed ground. History is buried there on this 4-acre tract of land at the end of Wilson Avenue near Granville Street.
It was the only place African Americans were allowed to be buried in Dunn until 1958, according to Joy Williams, who has devoted the last 16 years of her life to clean it up with her husband and Gerelene Goodman at her side.
Williams says she’s too old to do the work she used to do at the site. Their efforts have relied heavily on volunteers.
And some of them are now buried in the very cemetery they tend, according to Goodman.
But the Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club in Raleigh came to their aid on Saturday.
A few years back “we came to Dunn to do the MLK Parade and were eating at Sagebrush afterward when Miss Joy told us about Wilkins Cemetery,” said Christopher “Deal Maker” Robinson, president of the chapter.
The club was looking for a service project it could do in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and someone mentioned they could clean up parks or cemeteries.
“Then I remembered Miss Joy and we started searching her out, got in touch with her and that’s kind of how we’re here,” he said.
Robinson grew up in Dunn. He was 16 years old before he even realized the cemetery existed. The woods and brush kept it hidden for decades.
“I was surprised that it had gotten to this condition. She’s done a lot of work because this side used to look like the side over there where all the trees are,” he said, pointing to the woods in the northern most part of the graveyard. “And it was just her, her husband and a few volunteers. It’s kind of sad that the city doesn’t take more interest in making this happen.”
The Buffalo Soldiers brought almost 20 volunteers to help clean up the site on Saturday.
“This is probably the biggest turnout of volunteers we’ve ever had,” Williams said as she carefully walked the ground, tangled with prickly vines and tripping roots among plots unmarked except for the hollow indentations of sunken graves. She’s been injured more than once at the cemetery. But the work is important and someone has to do it, she said.
Williams and Goodman have tried to uncover the history of the estimated 1,000 people buried in the yard, restoring markers to those who have no stones.
Like James Toon, who played for the New York Giants, was an All-American for the Aggies and coached the Fayetteville State University Broncos. He died in 2011, a white cross made of PVC pipes — placed by the cleanup committee, and a pewter name plate are the only markers on his grave.
“He should have a better marker,” Williams said.
And Baby Boy Johnson, who lived and died in one day in 1990, his story untold, except for his name and a date on the pewter plate on a white PVC cross.
And a Vietnam veteran, named John Jay … his last name hidden by the soil and grass that have crept over it.
And the Finch family, whose ancestors used to walk to the old Wilkins ice cream parlor with a weekly payment of 25 cents until the plots were paid up, according to Williams. The Finches burial ground still shows the greatest care with flowers and markers untouched by the woods that gobbled up the graves around it.
But there are so many graves and so much work left to do. The Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club has adopted the cemetery as its service project.
-Dunn Daily Record