LINCOLNTON, North Carolina — A few weeks ago, walking to visit her late father at Providence Baptist Church cemetery in Lincolnton, Wanda Cates would have had to climb thorny bushes and fallen trees.
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Providence Baptist Church is a historic black church in Lincoln County, and the cemetery was one of the few places where black families could be buried during racial segregation.
After 1967 the churchyard was set aside and hidden in a growing forest
Two Boy Scout brothers undertook the massive job of clearing the cemetery and uncovering the graves as part of their Eagle Scout project
Two worn cement bricks showing Cates the way to his father’s grave.
“It was like a desert, nothing but trees, trees on top of the trees, you couldn’t see anything, branches all over the ground. You couldn’t walk like we walk now because you would trip and fall,” Cates said.
During times of racial segregation, Cates said black people were not allowed to be buried in Hollybrook Cemetery, the public cemetery operated by the City of Lincolnton.
Providence Baptist Church was one of the few places where black families could bury their loved ones.
After 1967, when blacks were permitted in Hollybrook, Providence Baptist Cemetery was set aside and its upkeep became a burden on the church.
Over the years, the forest has grown on the plots, hiding the graves.
Brothers Kyle and Landon Naylor were working at the nearby car wash when, during the winter months, they spotted graves.
The brothers decided to clean up the cemetery as part of their Eagle Scout project.
“We couldn’t even get in very well because out front was just trees, and a whole wall of thorns and vines, so we had to find a way to get around,” Kyle said. Naylor, 16 years old.
It was a colossal undertaking, over four months of hard work. The brothers involved family and neighbors to help cut down the trees.
A donated wood chipper made the job easier and provided mulch for a new walkway.
Tree branches were used to build a fence around the graves, and 14-year-old Landon Naylor began archiving the graves and registering them online for families to find.
“We think there are more here, but we just don’t know where they are,” Landon Naylor said.
“They did a fantastic job. We can’t thank them enough for what they did,” Cates said.
The community, along with the church and scouts, will continue to oversee the cemetery.