In 1857, an official census lists 525 people living in the High Point area, including 70 enslaved individuals and 14 free Black people. Early recorded deaths in the soon-to-be established town included the seven-year-old son of Dr. Lindsay in 1854 and a 16-year-old girl in 1856. Town commissioners chose a committee to find a cemetery site. They selected the high knoll that is now Oakwood Cemetery, purchased the property from W. Sheek, and opened the cemetery in 1859 - this was four years before the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and long before integration.
The oldest part of the cemetery is near the office at the top of the hill, near Steele Street. Mrs. Margaret Denny, who died in December 1859, is noted as the first burial. The body of the young Lindsay boy, who had been buried on his father’s land, was then moved to Oakwood.
The deed for High Point’s cemetery was not made until February 1, 1860, from W. Sheek to R.C. Lindsay, Eli Denny, John Carter, S. Farlow, and Nathan Hunt, commissioners of the town. Since High Point as a municipal entity began in 1859, it may not have been possible to buy land or establish a city cemetery before incorporation. The site was purchased for $90 to be used for a cemetery. Also in the deed: “…the said burying ground shall be open and free for the purposes of burying all white citizens.” As of now, it is unclear when a section of the cemetery was reserved for African American burials.
Oakwood Cemetery is a cemetery within a cemetery. A private burial ground, developed by local realtor Stephen C. Clark in the 1930s, lies alongside the municipal cemetery. Oakwood Memorial Park was strictly for burials of the white residents of High Point. In June 2015, the Oakwood Memorial Park was donated to the City of High Point. The entire Oakwood Cemetery today contains over 10,000 gravesites on its 30 acres.
Photograph from the dedication of the historical marker for the “Colored Section” of Oakwood Cemetery on April 28, 2017.
Map showing the section of Oakwood Cemetery reserved for African American burials.
The tombstones of the “colored section” read like a history of the African American community of High Point. Many of the city’s prominent early African American citizens are buried here. In 1910, the City of High Point established Greenhill Cemetery on six acres in the eastern part of the town (now on Leonard Avenue) for African Americans, and very few were buried in Oakwood afterward. The cemetery opened up its grounds again to African Americans in the 1970s.
In 2017, a marker was placed at Oakwood’s “colored section” through the City’s Historical Marker program, bringing attention to it and recognition to those buried there. Research is ongoing to identify as many people interred here as possible, since most of the gravesites are unmarked.
Through a grant provided by the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office through the National Park Service, the City engaged New South Associates to perform ground-penetrating radar of the “colored section.” As reported by The High Point Enterprise in November 2020, New South concluded that there were over 400 individual graves. Research efforts also continue to learn more about each individual possibly buried in this part of the cemetery, even if their gravesites cannot be located.
“Effectively, what they found is anomalies in the ground,” explained Chris Andrews, development administrator for the city’s Planning and Development Department, which received a $3,200 grant to conduct the survey. “They can’t prove that it’s graves, but based on how it looks on their radar, they have a pretty good hunch those are graves.”
According to Andrews, the survey of the approximately 1-acre grid at the cemetery found an estimated 455 probable graves but only 99 markers, leaving 356 unmarked graves.
“But they also say that’s a fairly conservative estimate,” he added, “so there could be more.” (The High Point Enterprise, November 17, 2020)
Maeve Herrick, a geophysical specialist with New South Associates, uses ground-penetrating radar to try to locate gravesites in the African American section of Oakwood Cemetery in June 2020. Photograph from New South Associates.
Links to the New South Associates’ survey work:
Contributed by Linda Willard. Linda is an active member of the High Point Historical Society, the High Point Preservation Society, and Friends of John Coltrane among other local history and cultural organizations. Her love of history has led her to research Quakers and High Point’s African American community, including the High Point Normal and Industrial Institute/William Penn High School and Oakwood Cemetery’s “Colored Section.” Linda won a publication award in 2020 from the North Carolina Society of Historians and its Award of Excellence in 2021.