Happy Hill Cemetery in Winston-Salem, North Carolina has been anything but “happy” throughout the last few decades. Designed as a cemetery for the once thriving black community known as Happy Hill, the Cemetery has seen years of destruction beginning with the construction of U.S. Highway 52 in the 1950s that cut the cemetery in half. The graves disturbed during the construction of U.S. 52 were reinterred in another cemetery. Time and neglect took its toll on the Cemetery which quickly became an overgrown lot with lost and damaged headstones. A group which calls themselves the Happy Hill Cemetery Friends meets every Saturday morning to help restore the Cemetery to its original condition, identify the graves, and determine which churches owned which portions of the Cemetery.
It was on one of these Saturday mornings, in 2012, when men clearing the southern edge of the Cemetery discovered a carved piece of terra cotta molding roughly the size of a banker’s box. After much research it was determined that the terra cotta piece belonged to the exterior molding of the now-demolished 1892 Winston Town Hall. By 1926 Winston Town Hall had been demolished to make way for the Reynolds Building which still stands on the corner of Liberty and Fourth Street today. At the time, the Cemetery was an easy dumping ground for construction debris.
Today there is debate over what should be done with this piece of Winston’s past. Some would like it displayed in City Hall, some would like it displayed in a museum, while others think it should be incorporated into the redesign of the Reynolds Building. While these are all valid ideas, one unspoken question remains: who exactly owns the terra cotta molding and therefore, who can make the decision as to what to do with it. The molding was originally part of a city-owned building but was later dumped and abandoned in Happy Hill Cemetery. Happy Hill Cemetery itself has been abandoned and volunteers have yet to determine which churches own which portions of the cemetery. Even if the Cemetery’s ownership was determined, most of the churches no longer exist.
North Carolina General Statute § 65-85(1) defines an abandoned cemetery as a cemetery “ceased from maintenance or use by the person with legal right to the real property with the intent of not again maintaining the real property in the foreseeable future.” As the original property owners no longer exist it can be reasoned that Happy Hill Cemetery is abandoned as it is not being maintained by those with the legal right to the property and will not be maintained by those nonexistent churches in the foreseeable future. It may also be deemed “neglected” as it was, “left unattended or uncared for through carelessness or intention and lacking a caretaker” (See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 65-85(5)). However, as the Happy Hill Cemetery Friends continue their work it may no longer be deemed “neglected.”
Under North Carolina General Statute § 65-113, the County Commissioners may choose to maintain and control abandoned cemeteries. However, this statute only applies to public cemeteries and North Carolina General Statute § 160A-345 states that cemeteries “owned or controlled by any church or religious organization” cannot be condemned by the city nor can the city acquire title to the property unless “the owner of the property consents to the acquisition.” As such, the city has no authority to direct the cleanup of the Cemetery and determine what is to be done with any debris found on the property. Yet at the same time, the churches no longer exist and therefore cannot consent to the city acquiring control of the Cemetery. As such, with the city being prohibited from acquiring the Cemetery and with the original owners no longer in existence, Happy Hill Cemetery has become a cemetery with no true owner.