Fact Friday 361 - The Significance of Biddleville Cemetery - Part 4
This week's Fact Friday comes to you from the Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission.
On November 22, 1873, the Matoons sold approximately one acre of land at the north end of Biddleville to trustees Olmstead Brown, Toney Jordan, and Milas Thompson. The property was, according to the deed, "in trust of the use and behoof as a cemetery lot of the Society of the 'Minute Men.'" There are no further records of the "Minute Men," which was most likely one of many black civic organizations founded during Reconstruction.
Biddleville Cemetery is not a slave cemetery. it was established during the Civil War, and all persons buried were free African-Americans. Similar non-slave cemeteries in Mecklenburg County are Roseland Cemetery (ca. 1865), the burial ground of members of Roseville A.M.E. Zion Church in Matthews; Ben Salem Cemetery (ca. 1869), which is connected with Ben Salem Presbyterian Church on Monroe Road; and Pinewood Cemetery, the African-American municipal cemetery adjacent to Elmwood Cemetery in Charlotte. While Biddleville Cemetery was not officially affiliated with a church, members of community churches - Mt. Carmel Baptist Church, Biddleville Presbyterian Church, and Greater Gethsemane A.M.E. Zion Church - were typically buried there. Because of Biddleville's location outside of the Charlotte city limits, the cemetery essentially served as the village cemetery. This perception is present on the 1942 death certificate for Hazel Martin, which lists the cemetery as "Biddleville Village."
The burial location of most persons in Biddleville Cemetery is unknown. African-American cemeteries differed from white cemeteries in design, use of markers, and landscaping. While white Elmwood Cemetery was planned as a cemetery park with pleasant lawns and sweeping drives for Sunday afternoon walks, Biddleville Cemetery served solely as a burial ground for the residents of Biddleville. The scattered arrangement of plots in black cemetery is thus described:
African-American cemeteries are not landscaped as Euro-American cemeteries are. They have depressions or mounds and not attempt is made to make grass grow over the graves nor to create special vegetation. Trees are native, not specially planted, and are neither encouraged nor discouraged. Rather than the park-like setting with formal landscaping often found in Euro-American cemeteries, the African-American cemetery does not attempt to romanticize death nor create an artificial landscape.
The only path in the Biddleville Cemetery was a road for vehicular transport of coffins located near the entrance to Five Points Park. A similar approach to African-American cemetery landscape design may be seen in Pinewood Cemetery, which is "shaded by an abundance of mature hardwood trees" with "the family plots... laid out seemingly arbitrarily." Since there was no fence around Biddleville Cemetery, its boundary was a bit arbitrary, as well. According to Gene Pharr, some graves are located outside the property line in the back yard of the house at the corner of French and Mattoon Streets.
Biddleville Cemetery was not officially tied to a church, though various death certificates refer to it as Gethsemane Church Cemetery (1931) or Biddleville-Emmanuel Church Cemetery (1965). Likewise, the Charlotte City Directory between 1925 and 1931 refer to the cemetery as Gethsemane Cemetery. While the cemetery name may have fluctuated, one constant for many years was the presence of caretaker Carey Ethridge (1861-1941). Ethridge served as caretaker of Biddleville Cemetery starting in the 1910s until his death. Born a slave in Norfolk, VA, Ethridge moved to Biddleville in the 1870s. He bought an acre of land from Stephen Mattoon in May 1889 for $30.00 (or $966 in today's dollars (2022)). Many members of the Ethridge family are buried in Biddleville Cemetery. After Ethridge's death, however, there is no record of the cemetery having an official caretaker. In addition, after 1931 the cemetery was no longer mentioned in the city directories.
While burials in Biddleville Cemetery certainly occurred in the 1870s after the property had been established, the earliest known burial in Biddleville Cemetery occurred in 1886. John Springs was one of tow men who died in an elevator accident at the Mecklenburg Iron Works in February (1886).
Many notable residents of Biddleville are buried in the cemetery. Isreal Harris (1833-unknown) was an elder at Seventh Street Presbyterian Church. Several ministers are interred, including Rev. Boysie B. Moore (1888-1950), former pastor at St. Paul's Baptist Church in Brooklyn and Myers Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church in Cherry, and Rev. Samuel Milius Pharr (1858-1936), who pastored many A.M.E. Zion churches in the Catawba Presbytery. Pharr was also the original owner of the Pharr Building on Beatties Ford Road, later home of the Grand Theater. George W. Pharr owned Pharr Service Station and grocery at the corner of Beatties Ford Road and Celia Avenue in Washington Heights in the late 1920s.
Burial in Biddleville Cemetery was free, with the only cost to the men who dug the grave site. Gene Pharr worked with his father Bernard Pharr to dig graves in the late 1930s and early 1940s. They were paid $5 per grave. Gene remembers the cemetery being filled with graves and markers, many of which did not have names on them. There were few large stone markers since many Biddleville residents could not afford them.
Because there was no cost to purchase a burial plot, increases in the number of burials in Biddleville Cemetery during periods of economic depression become quite understandable. The 1920s saw approximately 58 burials in the cemetery, and in the following decade that number increased to 96. Economic hardship frequently struck African-American communities harder than white ones. During the 1930s, black unemployment in urban areas reached 50% across the country, double the rate of their white counterparts.
As Charlotte grew and local cemeteries filled to capacity, additional cemeteries opened for the African-American community. Cedar Grove Cemetery, located at the dead end of Hildebrand Street in nearby Washington Heights, was established in the late 1910s as the black counterpart to nearby white Oaklawn Cemetery. York Memorial Park opened in 1941 and was located on the southeast side of town on York Road (today South Tryon Street). These cemeteries are typical of modern cemeteries with master plans that call for access roads convenient for hearses, plots laid out in straight rows, and requirements for grave markers.
By the 1940s, the number of annual burials in Biddleville Cemetery had sharply declined. York Memorial Park especially had a strong impact, with many Biddleville Residents choosing to be buried in the newer, more modern cemetery despite having a spouse already buried in Biddleville. George Johnson, Jr. died in 1961 and was buried in Biddleville, but his wife Alice died the following year and was buried in York. Similarly, Maggie Pharr Gormley chose to be buried with her family in Biddleville in 1947, but her widower, Thomas was interred in York in 1957. Burial did not cease in Biddleville Cemetery but continued on into the 1980s. The latest documented burial in the cemetery is of Hattie B. Harris Lowery, who died June 4, 1982. A concrete cross grave market is still extant, though it is difficult to read.
Check out our other related posts:
Fact Friday 85 - Boomtown Beginnings - A College for Freedmen
Fact Friday 46 - James B. Duke and the Duke Legacy
Until next week!
The Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, "Biddleville Cemetery: Located in Five Points Park, French Street," November 2016
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