In Wilmington, the Maides Cemetery is a historic African American gravesite that dates back to the 19th century. It’s home to over 200 graves. Less than half of them, however, are identified.
On Saturday, the Historic Wilmington Foundation and UNC-Wilmington plan to lead a project to identify more of those graves.
The two are performing a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) survey, with the goal of more accurately determining the cemetery’s limits as well as learning more about those who are buried within it.
Leading the project is Karla Berrios, a graduate student at UNCW. She said identifying potential gravesites is one of the main goals of the project.
“[To get] the full scope of who could be buried here,” Berrios said. “So we can organize some sort of way of memorializing the people who do not have markers.”
Berrios will be joined by the director of her masters program, Jennifer Le Zotte, and Scott Nooner, a geology professor.
Berrios and Le Zotte said in Wilmington, Black history has historically been unacknowledged.
“There are hundreds upon hundreds of abandoned African American cemeteries just like Maides cemetery,” Le Zotte said. “I think that it’s really important to represent not just the racial tragedies that have occurred here, but also to celebrate the lives and, and deaths and families of Black communities with as much respect and dignity as has been historically afforded to white burial sites.”
Nooner noted that the noninvasive nature of the ground-penetrating radar survey — which uses a lawnmower-style antenna device to penetrate the ground — allows them to look for the graves without disturbing the actual burial sites.
“In a lot of cases [ground-penetrating radar] is often a very important first step, and often a final step to identifying a potential gravesite,” Nooner said.
The GPR survey will be a continuation of work the Historic Wilmington Foundation has been leading for years. It began when a community activist, Kathy King, started a search to find her sister Carolyn’s grave.
Since 2021, King has been leading ongoing volunteer clean-ups of the cemetery. The work has led to grave markers and archaeological artifacts being discovered, as well as new headstones being placed for identified graves.
“It is important to honor the Maides family and those community members who are buried within the cemetery,” King said in a statement. “This endeavor would be impossible without the dedicated volunteers who participate in the cemetery’s care.”
King hasn’t found her sister’s grave yet, but she is hopeful the GPR survey will provide some answers.
Travis Gilbert, the executive director of the Historic Wilmington Foundation, said the partnership with UNC-Wilmington will be a “significant step forward” in preserving the history of Maides Cemetery.
“We anticipate that the findings will not only clarify the boundaries of Maides Cemetery, but also help us uncover and honor the legacies of those buried within its grounds,” Gilbert said in a statement.
UNCW graduate student Karla Berrios said she and Nooner will analyze the data after the survey. Depending on what they find, Berrios said they could end up surveying the grounds again.
Berrios will also be working with King to look into the genealogy of the Maides family, and potentially other families buried within the cemetery.