Across the river from Wilmington, near the New Hanover County landfill, Flemington-Oak Grove Cemetery stands behind a locked gate. I visit the forgotten burial ground from time to time.
I don’t know why I bother stopping by; I’m not sure there’s a single body buried in it. But for whatever reason, I feel a connection to the place. Every so often, I hop over the gate and scan the names on the headstones – wondering, is my family buried here? Is anyone?
Flemington-Oak Grove Cemetery is the result of the relocation of the much older Oak Grove. Established by Wilmington in 1870 off 16th and 17th Streets near the present-day Scottish Rite Temple, Oak Grove served as the city cemetery. A decade later, the graveyard had to be expanded to accommodate burials.
In 1882, ownership of the city cemetery was transferred to the county. New Hanover renamed it Oak Grove after the live oaks that grew on the eastern side of the property. A year later, they added a small lodge. Oak Grove contained more than 2,000 graves by 1891.
Though the graveyard catered to the underprivileged, it was more than a pauper cemetery. Surrounded by wire fencing, Oak Grove was divided into three sections. The largest section was for black burials, a smaller portion was reserved for whites, and the third was a potter’s field. Those not laid to rest with the indigent paid to be buried with their loved ones, while others received subsidized plots.
Since most of those buried in Oak Grove were impoverished, there were few tombstones in the graveyard. Instead of monuments, graves were marked with everyday items like seashells, dolls, mugs, and old beds.
Oak Grove was a unique part of Wilmington’s cultural heritage. But unfortunately, not everyone saw it that way. Nine years shy of its centennial, the city voted to extend 16th and 17th Streets, cutting right through the cemetery.
When the county decided to move Oak Grove across the river to a new site at Flemington, the cemetery contained more than 10,000 gravesites. My great-grandpa Owens, two granduncles, and a grandaunt were among them. The oldest of my Owens cousins say the family was never notified of the impending move.
According to local historian Bill Reaves, Oak Grove’s memorial stones were loaded haphazardly onto trucks and dumped at Flemington. The stones were then laid out in lines, breaking up family groups. Reaves stated that though the headstones were moved, the bodies were left behind.
Today, Oak Grove is a series of empty lots. No one goes there to lay flowers on any of the thousands of remaining graves. The only visitors Oak Grove gets are the transient who set up tents in the overgrown lots.
For decades after Oak Grove was destroyed, New Hanover County denied bodies remained behind in the older graveyard. It took the county until 2018 to finally admit responsibility and vote to protect the 19th-century cemetery. For those of us with loved ones buried in Oak Grove, it is a small victory.