The old cemetery next to Mallard Creek Presbyterian Church slopes gently down a hill, where a low stone wall separates the worn headstones and manicured grass from another, untended burial ground hidden in the woods: The final resting place for an unknown number of slaves.
It’s a piece of the city’s antebellum history bumping up against Charlotte’s present-day boom, a reminder of the year just before the Civil War, when about 6,800 of Mecklenburg County’s 17,000 residents – four out of every 10 – were enslaved. When they died, black slaves were buried separately from whites, usually in poorly marked graves outside of white cemeteries, a practice that continued when slavery ended but segregation persisted.
The graveyard came to light in recent weeks, during the fight over developers’ plans to build a Topgolf entertainment venue and up to 395 apartments, on almost 66 acres of wooded land at Mallard Creek Church Road and Interstate 85. Some neighbors, who oppose the plan because they think it will bring noise, light pollution and traffic, raised concerns about the possibility of unmarked slave graves on the developers’ property.
And so, last week, surveyors with ground-penetrating radar and long probes cleared the underbrush next to the the low stone wall around the cemetery. They found clear evidence of a slave graveyard – shallow depressions in the ground, a covering of periwinkle commonly planted at such sites, plain stones arrayed in a grid-like pattern.
“We’re going to have it surveyed and make sure everyone knows where it is,” said John Porter of Charter Properties, one of the developers. “We want to make sure we protect it.”
But late Friday, the developers and Topgolf said they’re dropping their plans for the site. The developers are evaluating what they can do with the land in the future, while Topgolf is looking at other sites in north Charlotte to expand.
Any future plans from the developers will also have to take the slave graveyard into account.
The developers hired Dan Morrill, director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, to study the site. It’s owned by one of the companies and runs parallel to the church’s property. Discovering an unmarked cemetery isn’t an everyday event, but in a city with thousands of enslaved individuals who were buried over decades, usually with no or skimpy markers and records, it’s not rare either.
“It’s not common, but it’s not extraordinary,” said Morrill. Other churches, such as Providence Presbyterian and Sardis Presbyterian, have identified and established memorials at slave graveyards on their property. “There are many, many, many unknown and unmarked cemeteries and burial places in Mecklenburg County.”
A complicated history
Mallard Creek Presbyterian Church was formally organized in 1830, more than three decades before the Civil War and 35 years before the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the U.S.
The inscriptions on gravestones in the church’s old cemetery reveal hints of what life was like for the white church members. It was a world where there were far more gravestones marking people who died young – carried away at 12, 16, 25 – than lived into their 60s and 70s, and where young men died in far-off places such as Richmond during the Civil War.
But the slave cemetery, a few dozen yards away, offers few clues beyond the plain stones and shallow impressions barely visible in the underbrush. Nineteen graves have been confirmed so far.
James Killian, a church official and chair of the cemetery committee, said he had heard slaves might be buried in unmarked graves inside the old graveyard’s wall, but didn’t know about graves outside. He’s waiting to learn more about the size of the burial ground. Killian said the church could work with the developer to memorialize the site in some way, but they need to gather more information.
“It’s all so new. We’re going day-by-day here,” said Killian. “The developer has been extremely cooperative.”
The complicated and emotional nature of the history of slavery in Mecklenburg – and how it can clash with a modern-day development – burst into public view last week at a Charlotte City Council meeting. One of the neighbors opposed to the development showed up at a Charlotte City Council meeting with a sign that read “SOS Save Our Slaves.” The sign was meant to highlight a desire to preserve the site, but its insensitive wording incensed some council members.
“I’m not quite sure if you know how offensive that might be to those of us down here who are African-American,” City Council member Al Austin, who is black, told the man holding the sign, who appeared to be white. “Sir, that is the wrong message to send...I am quite offended.”
Gail Buff, one of the leaders of the opposition, apologized to City Council after that incident. She said the community needs more information about the graves and how they would be preserved.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions,” said Buff. “There are too many unknowns right now.”
She and her neighbors had other concerns beyond the graves: Light from the Topgolf venue spilling into their homes, increased traffic from this and other nearby developments, people who live in the new apartments using their neighborhood streets for a cut-through. Topgolf has proven extremely popular at its first location in Steele Creek, one reason Buff opposed the plan.
“It's like an amusement park in your neighborhood,” she said. “It’s really nice, but nobody wants that right here.”
City Council had been expected to vote on the proposal at their July 17 zoning meeting. Porter, the developer, said they had taken steps to address neighbors’ concerns, such as agreeing to leave a wider buffer of trees between nearby houses and the development, reducing the height of planned apartment buildings and trying to make sure Topgolf’s lights won’t be visible at night from nearby neighborhoods.
And, before dropping their plans, Porter said the developers would redesign the planned entrance road near the slave cemetery to make sure it doesn’t disturb the graves. Most of the land in that portion of the development had been slated for a runoff-collection and buffer area, so buildings wouldn’t have gone there in any case.
“The important thing is to identify and preserve it,” he said.