The property known as the Alexander Slave Cemetery is located to the south side of Mallard Creek Church Road just west of its intersection with Highway US 29 (just behind the Jack in the Box and the Exxon and 7-Eleven at the corner of Mallard Creek Church Road and North Tryon St.)
The house on the property, the William T. Alexander House, is a historic plantation house. Now surrounded by modern development, the house is an extremely rare surviving example of antebellum domestic architecture in the county. It is one of the county’s oldest remaining houses and the earliest example of brick construction. Family tradition holds that the house was built by John E. Orr in 1799 and that W. T. Alexander I acquired it in 1823 or 1824. The two families had been previously intertwined via marriage, as W. T. was born the son of Moses Alexander and Elizabeth Orr Alexander in 1802. William purchased a 100-acre tract "lying on the headwaters of Mallard Creek" from Samuel C. Caldwell on October 12, 1819. This was the initial portion of what was to become a 935-acre plantation, one of the largest in Mecklenburg County, by the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. By this time, Mr. Alexander had become the owner of more than 30 slaves, which was reflective of both the amount of wealth he had amassed as well as the demand for bonded labor following the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793. Still, most farmers around him only owned one or two slaves. Some of the land was eventually gifted to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte by William’s wife, Mary C. Alexander.
The W. T. Alexander House (circa 1825)
Because of the nature of the census records, and the inaccessibility of more accurate family records, it is not possible to know exactly how many slaves were buried in this cemetery. Estimates have ranged as high as 50 persons, and from the available data, it is not liberal to assume that there may be 25-30 persons interred there. Only two headstones have been placed in this cemetery, and the most legible one was broken by a fallen tree. One tombstone marks the resting place of a slave named Violet, who must have enjoyed a relatively close relationship with the family to merit a memorial. Violet and another slave, Solomon are mentioned in Alexander's will. It was Alexander's wish that Violet and Solomon remain on the plantation to care for his widow and be supported by his estate.
The marker was placed in memory of W. T. Alexander's first slaves by their children, and reads:
About two dozen common fieldstones stand upright, embedded into the ground, scattered around the two cut markers, and mark the locations of the other graves. The stones are of types that are indigenous to the area, and are not shaped or marked in any way. They were probably picked up off the ground on the day of the funeral, and simply placed at the head of the grave. Probably many more have fallen or sunken into the ground and are no longer visible. No one really knows how many slaves rest beneath the periwinkle amongst the trees.
The slave cemetery is deep in the woods, and probably always was. Mixed hardwoods; hickory, ash, oaks, maples and cedar trees, surround the site. A few pines have grown up in and around the burying ground, but were subsequently cut down, leaving a few stumps among the stones.
To put this into context, slave cemeteries are extremely rare. Tombstones for slaves are rare, and the two grave markers at the Alexander cemetery are the exception rather than the rule. J. G. Clinkscales, a South Carolinian who grew up on an ante-bellum plantation, wrote about a particular slave, Unc' Essick, in his memoirs. Unc' Essick was a faithful and well liked slave according to Clinkscales's account. However, when Unc' Essick, the "faithful slave, the patient teacher, the colored gentleman" drowned, he was buried in an unmarked grave. Apparently, not all slaves were fortunate enough to receive a proper burial. Jacob Strayer, an emancipated slave who also grew up in South Carolina recalled that sometimes “unruly” slaves were killed in the fields by cruel overseers who would bury them where they fell. This too must have been exceptional. However, the existence of a formal slave cemetery, on property specially set aside for the proper burial of the dead is also an exception.
The universals known about the burial customs of slaves are that the dead were usually buried at night, and the ceremony of the funeral and the act of burial were not performed on the same day. Slaves were buried at night because labor on the plantation took precedence over the interment. The funeral service was often held after the burial, on a date approved by the plantation owner. The slaves also preferred to hold the funeral service at a later date, and the delay of this rite allowed others to attend. The funeral was an elaborate service, and was full of much pageantry. Slave funeral customs were strongly linked to African customs. The purpose of the funeral was to assist the dead in their voyage "home", and a large part of this assistance was provided through funeral revelry. Graves were often decorated with crockery or the last article used by the deceased.
Despite its isolated and overgrown condition, the Alexander Slave Cemetery is the best-kept of the handful of remaining slave burial sites in Mecklenburg County. It is the only one known with a carved marker, and the only one known with as many surviving stones. The Alexander slave cemetery is a valuable resource to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg community. It is also an especially significant part of the black history of this area. The home has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2003 but the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission have write-ups on the property dating back to 1976.
Until next week!
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Information taken from:
W.T. Alexander House, Dan L. Morrill, Jack O. Boyte
The Alexander Slave Cemetery, Dan L. Morrill, Paula M. Stathakis
“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass