AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Today is Juneteenth. It's a celebration commemorating the end of slavery and dates back to 1865. Around the country, some towns are celebrating with festivals and events. In Asheville, North Carolina, an effort is being made to do more in remembering the city's slave history. A team of archaeologists is using technology to map gravesites in a cemetery that served the black community in that city for generations. Joining me to talk more about the project is Jeff Keith. He's a professor at Warren Wilson College. Welcome to the program.
JEFF KEITH: Thanks for having me, Audie.
CORNISH: So talk us a little bit more about this cemetery. Where is it situated and what kind of condition is it in these days?
KEITH: Well, the cemetery is actually in the middle of Asheville, not in the middle of the city downtown. But as the city has developed, it's on top of Beaucatcher Mountain, situated really in the center of town. And it's in what is now a neighborhood known as Kenilworth. If you can imagine, there are no roads that approach it. It was in the woods when it was established. And the cemetery has, over the years, fallen into disrepair, beginning in the '40s when it was closed.
CORNISH: Any markers really?
KEITH: There are about 100 markers with names on them. This is deceptive though because the actual cemetery is the final resting place for at least 2,000 people. So most of the markers that you find there are kind of unconventional field stones on their end, sometimes wooden crosses that of course have, over time, rotted, but you can tell where some of the crosses were and other markings, sometimes people planted trees. So it looks to most people like a field with some stones in it. But when you look closer - or know to look closer - you realize there are many people there.
CORNISH: So you're saying an estimated 2,000? And I understand - I'm looking at the Google Earth program that you guys have developed that actually indexes the gravesites. You see lots of little black lines, like little strike marks. Does each of these represent a grave?
KEITH: Yes, it does. And that's what's kind of astonishing. Before we made this map and put it on Google Earth, we still had a map, per se. It was, you know, a flat, 2-D representation of the 1,961 graves that in the 1990s, a team of archaeologists went out and probed the earth and actually discovered were all these graves were. But it wasn't on a map like it is now in terms of being represented in geographical space. Now we can see where it's situated in the context of Asheville as a whole.
CORNISH: I want to talk a little bit more about the people that were buried there. I understand during the kind of New Deal era, WPA writers' projects, they actually found the stories of some of the folks who eventually came to rest there, like Sarah Gudger. We have a little sound from writings from her that's read here by an actor.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (Reading) One day, I'll never forget it, we look out and see soldiers marching. Looked like the whole valley full of them. I thought poor, helpless critters. Just going away to get killed. The drums was beaten and the fifes are playing. There was a foot company. Oh, glory, it was a site.
CORNISH: Jeff Keith, tell us a little bit more about her.
KEITH: Sarah Gudger's an amazing woman. She was born, we think, around 1816. This is what's astonishing - if she was born in 1816, then she was interviewed in 1937 by Marjorie Jones. It was part of the New Deal, WPA Federal Writer's Project. And at that point, Sarah Gudger would have been 120, and this means too that she, unlike a lot of the people who were interviewed for the WPA slave narratives, had adult memories of being a slave. That recollection of soldiers marching through the fields would have of course been in the 1860s, by then she would've been in her 40s.
CORNISH: Now, I understand there's also a story behind the long-time caretaker for the cemetery, a man by the name of George Avery. He would eventually be buried there himself. He really stepped up in a community that wasn't taking care of this resting place.
KEITH: George Avery, he was born around 1844 and belonged to William Wallace McDowell, one of the largest slave owners in Western North Carolina. He ended up, though, joining the union army and this allowed him to gain a pension. And after the Civil War, he decided to return home. And he was caretaking the cemetery that he had been helping to run under McDowell. But he continued to maintain the cemetery until 1940. This is quite significant because it allowed George Avery to continue his work with the African-American community there, then a freedman. So the cemetery, it's important to point out, contains both - is both the final resting place for slaves who died under slavery and many who were born into slavery, died free, and some who even were born free.
CORNISH: Professor Keith, I know there are several attempts around the country to try to locate and map these kinds of slave burial sites. What's the danger of letting them go unchartered? I mean, what is the real value of preserving this history?
KEITH: Well, Audie, I've been now to the South Asheville Cemetery many times with hundreds of people. And what I find is that when you walk out on the cemetery, it's a very important spiritual and historical site, and it raises questions. That's what I love about this place. It makes us ask questions, sometimes very difficult questions - who were these people? Why is it that they don't have headstones? What is it that they contributed to this community, and how does that relate to contemporary issues of race and inequality? And to my mind, that's just a handful of the many questions we're able to ask because of these places. So it's really up to community groups, and in this case, the South Asheville Cemetary Association has brought in many to sort of nurture that collective memory about slavery.
CORNISH: Jeff Keith, he's a professor at Warren Wilson College. He joined us from his studio in Lexington, Kentucky. Jeff, thanks so much for joining us.
KEITH: It was a pleasure, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.