Grave Site Cleanup Sheds Light on Past

65 people cleared truckloads of brambles and saplings from the old Erwin Mills cemetery

Erwin Mills Cemetery, West Pettigrew Street.

By Paul Bonner

Reprinted with permission from the Durham Herald-Sun (March 5, 2000). [Pictures courtesy of OWDNA].

What started as one man's quest for his grandfather's grave site brought scores of volunteers Saturday to the long-neglected resting place of the people who built West Durham.

About 65 people worked all morning with chain saws, axes and their hands, clearing away truckloads of brambles and saplings from the old Erwin Mills cemetery. The effort was organized by the Old West Durham Neighborhood Association. Bill Yarbrough of Chesapeake, Va., sought the headstone of his grandfather, Edward, who spelled the name Yarborough and reportedly was buried in 1936 in the cemetery for employees of the old cotton mill. He didn't find it.

Descendants of people buried in the cemetery talk about the lives of their grandparents.

But other descendants of mill workers found and cleaned up their forebears' graves, like that of Irene, wife of W.H. Cole, whose headstone stood surrounded by a small iron fence near the gravel road that passes the site, off LaSalle Street, just south of the railroad line through town.

They also found daffodils blooming untended as they had for generations. Their seasonal reappearance after the cemetery had been all but abandoned for decades impressed John Schelp as symbolic, and he suggested that the neighborhood plant more there.

Former Erwin Mills employees recollect working in the mills on Ninth Street.

"We knew there was a cemetery here," said Schelp, president of the neighborhood association, by way of explaining how the idea for the cleanup took root and grew. "But not many people knew much about it."

Schelp found something else that he recognized from having seen something similar half a world away.

He scanned the ground, thickly carpeted with fallen leaves, until he found a small patch of white. He bent down and brushed away the leaves to reveal a dozen or so weathered but well-preserved white seashells, large whelks, lying together on the ground.

Just like in cemeteries in the African Congo, he said, where he had lived more than 20 years earlier as a Peace Corps worker.

"Every time you'd come and visit, you'd leave a shell," he said.

Last fall, when he first spotted the shells, he started researching his hunch - that there, in West Durham, an ancient African burial custom had persisted in the 20th century. Sure enough, he found death certificates for blacks buried in the Erwin Mills cemetery. Perhaps even more unusual, they lay buried beside whites at a time when even graveyards usually were strictly segregated by race.

Old West Durham resident carries a load to the roadside...

...and another OWD neighbor prepares to fill one of many truckloads of branches and underbrush.

Yarbrough's quest started last fall, when he was looking through some old papers belonging to his late mother. Among them were yellowed newspaper fragments containing Edward Yarborough's obituary. Yarbrough found clues in them: Durham and the Erwin cotton mill cemetery.

He did a little Web surfing, found Old West Durham's site ( and dispatched an e-mail to Schelp.

Schelp replied and started inquiring among older residents, like John McDonald of McDonald's Drug Store on Ninth Street.

Eventually, he discovered that the cemetery was begun the same year as the mill and Trinity College, now Duke East Campus, 1893, dated by the earliest headstone date. The most recent ones are from the 1990s. Most of the headstones are modest marble and granite markers. Some are homemade, of fieldstone or the two upended concrete downspout splash blocks that bear indecipherable traces of paint.

Local candidate for public office lends a hand.

Many are children's graves, like this one: "Mamie, Dau. Of W.A. & Lulu Mitchell. Died August 5, 1913. Age 10 mo. Our Baby At Rest." An estimated 100 graves have no marker at all.

Schelp learned that William Erwin, the mill's owner, offered free burial in the cemetery to his workers.

In November, Yarbrough visited Durham, and he and Schelp toured the overgrown cemetery and began planning the cleanup. About 40 percent of those who participated Saturday were Old West Durham residents, about 40 percent were descendants of people buried there, and about 20 percent had no connection other than their goodwill, he said.

"I think we are inspired to have another cleanup," Schelp said.

"I feel great now," Yarbrough said. "You can see the headstones."

Even though his grandfather's wasn't among them, he was satisfied.

"It makes me feel good that people still care," he said.

Durham Herald Company, Inc.

65 people worked to clear the areas around the headstones. Here the remaining volunteers pause before heading home.

OWDNA Receives the Durham Grit Award

(Herald-Sun. March 11, 2000)

Bill Yarbrough's search for the burial place of an ancestor helped prompt a neighborly act in Durham. Yarbrough, of Chesapeake, Va., had wanted to find the headstone for his grandfather, Edward H. Yarbrough, whom he believed to be buried in the old Erwin Mills Cemetery. Yarbrough contacted the Web site of the Old West Durham neighborhood Association. The association's president, John Schelp, picked up on the e-mail and began a search of his own.

Yarbrough visited in November, and he, Schelp and other members of the neighborhood association began planning a clean-up of the Erwin Mills Cemetery. Last Saturday, about 65 people -- many of them descendants of people buried in the cemetery, -- cleared brush and brambles from the historic cemetery.

There's a happy ending to Yarbrough's search. In a letter to the editor published Friday, he said that a Durham woman, after reading news coverage of the clean-up, called Schelp and advised him of a survey she had worked on in the 1980s documenting the sites in the cemetery. She found record of Crittie Florence Yarbrough, wife of Edward H. Yarbrough, buried in the cemetery in an unmarked grave.

Bill Yarbrough's confirmation all came because Schelp chose not to ignore his e-mail. We bestow upon Schelp, the Old West Durham Neighborhood Association and all who cleaned up Erwin Mills Cemetery our Durham Grit Award.

Durham Herald Company, Inc.