Walking through the campus, you would never know it’s there. You wouldn’t think twice about the small fenced-in wooded area just off the winding Phillips Road, past the football field, across from the Energy Production and Infrastructure Center (EPIC) building and overlooking the baseball field.
You wouldn’t think anything of the fallen tree off to the side, the weed-ridden patches of ground or the occasional beer can strewn beyond the low fence unless you stepped inside the fence’s opening, an invitation into the past.
The only thing delicate about this place is the sunlight, streaming through breaks in the clusters of well-developed trees and ever-so-gently highlighting the rough slabs of rock that seem to have been selectively placed on certain areas of the ground.
Messy, carved drawings of crosses are free-handed into the sides of the rock slabs and can be seen if you look close enough, no two crosses alike.
Walking deeper into the stretch of land, your feet crunching on the multi-colored leaves that have been sprinkled down from the protective arms of the trees above, you might notice a dip in the ground as deep ridges become visible. You might even stop and notice the ridges that continue, in a row, for the length of the fenced-in area.
And though you wouldn’t realize it from the road, or even from 10 feet away, when you get really close you might notice that you’re looking at a small, makeshift cemetery.
It’s this tiny area, overlooked and sometimes forgotten about, that houses a rich piece of history about the grounds of UNC Charlotte.
In 1848, before UNC Charlotte existed, there were miles and miles of open fields and woods where the campus stands today.
“There was no Harris Blvd., there was no hospital, there was no library, there were no hotels, there was nothing. It was very rural. There were farms and before that there were plantations out in this vicinity,” said Janet Levy, UNC Charlotte’s chair of the Department of Anthropology.
“It was outside of town, and there were certain facilities out here.”
Two miles outside of Charlotte stood the Mecklenburg County Poor House. This institution took the responsibility for residents of the county if they could not provide for themselves, according to www.cmstory.org.
In 1870 the name changed to Mecklenburg County Home, and after that its location changed twice. A new institution was built in 1895 on 32nd Street. It then moved again in 1904 to Salisbury Road, also known as Highway 29.
And there it stood, in a location similar to where the university area Carolinas Medical Center stands today. The County Home was more commonly known as Green Acres, which it was renamed in 1957.
According to a Charlotte News article written in the same year, the full name was Green Acres, Home for the Aged and Infirm, “in order to get away from the poor house image.”
Many different types of people found themselves at Green Acres through the years. In a timeline composed by Christina Wright, an oral history interviewer who works at the J. Murrey Atkins Library in Special Collections, “Agricultural Mecklenburg and Industrial Charlotte: Social and Economic,” a book by Edgar Thompson, describes the institution and its inhabitants in 1926.
Thompson stated at that time there were 75 helpless, homeless, penniless and afflicted, and also said that the grounds of Green Acres (at that time, the County Home) were equipped with religious services, sun parlors, a chapel, a reception hall and a 500-acre farm.
“The inhabitants at the home changed significantly with the passage of time,” said Wright.
“During the Depression there were many indigents and some quite young people, even the odd child. Later it became increasingly the elderly and infirm. There was also a contingent of mentally ill, though some might be moved to the [North Carolina] insane asylum, and medication made a difference to their treatment regime,” said Wright.
The cemetery found on the UNC Charlotte campus is said to house the bodies of those who died in the County Home. Those who died and were buried on what are now university grounds could have been afflicted with any number of ailments seen in the inhabitants.
“They were homeless and no one claimed their bodies,” said Peter Franz, UNC Charlotte’s Real Estate and Land Use Director.
Requests for the demolition of Green Acres began in 1977 according to various documents found in the university’s Special Collections. The buildings were demolished in the early 1980s and the residents of Green Acres moved to the Magnolias, a hospital on South Graham Street in uptown Charlotte at the time, according to Wright’s timeline.
Time would tell when the students and staff of UNC Charlotte would discover the cemetery after the university was established in it’s current location in 1946.
“That land laid fallow for years, and then the trees grew back,” said Franz.
“I think folks who walked that area 30 years ago knew that it was there, but it was such a remote area of campus at that time. There was no development there of any kind. So when they built the baseball stadium the first time is when they probably first found the graves up there. Because that was right on the edge of the cemetery that we see now,” said Franz.
There is a second part to the cemetery several hundred feet away from the initial fence. A well separates the two areas and they are bounded by different fences, according to Wright.
Franz said that when the university began the construction of the recreation fields, where the football stadium is located today, the cemetery was rediscovered.
“It was about that time that the wooden fence that surrounds those two areas was put up, just to protect it and to make sure people didn’t trot through it and disrespect it in any way. There are some stones up there that are marked with little crosses. There’s no names, there’s no stones with dates on them. Some you just can see the depressions in the ground of how the graves are lined up and in rows, which is what really drew people’s attention,” said Franz.
Because the graves are unmarked, the identities of those buried are unknown.
“There is evidence that simple field stones were used to mark graves and you can still see these here and there,” Wright said.
Levy stated that because the graves are unmarked the number of people buried is unknown. She and her colleagues were among those who identified the area as a graveyard.
“Myself and Dr. Alan May from the Schiele Museum of Natural History in Gastonia went out one extremely cold day in March with a representative from facilities management to this area that they were concerned about. We walked over and we did some very minimal probing with an iron bar, which is something that you occasionally use for graves, and gave our considered opinion, basically on surface indications,” explained Levy.
She and her colleagues identified the area but did not excavate.
“The simplest thing to do was to protect this area. It appeared to me and my colleagues that it was not likely to be a family cemetery, because there often were little family cemeteries associated with farms. But those typically don’t have that many graves in them. This seemed to have several rows of graves, which suggests some sort of an institution,” said Levy.
No excavation of the area is planned, but Levy explained that there might not be anything left to excavate.
“Because of the chemistry of piedmont North Carolina clay soils, there is very little left. The acidity of our clay soils tends to lead to quite rapid disintegration and decay of coffins and human remains,” said Levy.
Although a part of the County Home history rests on the university’s campus, some do not realize it. Students Ashlee McCormick and Krista Murphy were shocked when they learned of the cemetery’s presence.
“I knew that Bonnie Cone was buried on campus, but I didn’t know there was a graveyard,” said Murphy, speaking about the university’s founder.
It’s fall, and the leaves continue to drop from the trees that watch over the cemetery. Bright reds and yellows cover the ground and shade the aging graves from the rest of campus.
Cars pass. Students walk by. The baseball team practices below. And the tiny cemetery lies below the trees and remains still and silent.