Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What's in a name?

So what's in the name of a cemetery? There's the stereotypical - "Eternal Rest Gardens", the location, "Green Street Cemetery", the honorarium "Cherry Hill", named after Mr. Cherry who donated the land, and the community "Black Bottom". There are many ways in which cemeteries get their names. One way that's fascinating to me is the sort of organic growth in which adjacent cemeteries come to be known by one name. It's a process I'm watching happen right now with Black Bottom.

Black Bottom Cemetery is technically composed only of the land owned by Church Women United, Inc. in Belhaven, NC. The ladies of this organization have worked to acquire the deed to the property (donated by the Latham family) and to convince the city to take over maintenance of this historic African American cemetery. They chose the name "Black Bottom" because the cemetery is/was the cemetery for the Black Bottom community. Straightforward enough, at least so far. Now the story begins though...

There are 2 or 3 cemeteries adjacent to each other. I don't know what name, if any, they had beyond "colored cemetery", "black cemetery", "[racial epithet] cemetery", "the cemetery", and other similar titles. The oldest part of the cemetery is that which is now owned by Church Women United. There are one or possibly two adjacent cemeteries, one is directly in front of the Church Women United property, and the other is next to this property. My search through the tax records of the city has not turned up an owner for one of the properties, which is an interesting anomaly I've seen in this area, as cemeteries are not taxed so the tax records often seem to be incomplete. As far as I can tell, there are 3 distinct plots of land, all of which have burials. I've lumped the plots into "Church Women United" and those which are included in media reports in the map below:

These three plots have, in media reports and press releases from the city, all been lumped together under the name Black Bottom. This isn't a bad thing, all three certainly are in need of maintenance, but it's been an interesting phenomenon to follow. Little Eva's grave is technically not in Black Bottom, for example (at least, not in the part owned by Church Women United). This process is something that I suspect has frustrated many a genealogist though. For example, in Greenville, the Methodist Burying ground of the mid 19th century became part of the Cherry Hill (aka Cherryhill) cemetery of today!

A final thought on this subject, cemetery names do often have meanings, and discovering those meanings can tell us something about the history and purpose of the cemetery, even if its something as prosaic as the good old standby of "Eternal Rest".

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