- Associated Press - Monday, January 16, 2017

CONTENTNEA, N.C. (AP) - Several tombstones in the small family graveyard in the Contentnea community of Greene County bear epitaphs that read: “Gone But Not Forgotten.”

Those words have taken of real meaning for Greene County native Evelyn Dowery of Charlotte and her brother, Darius Shackleford, of Snow Hill.

Greene County Commissioner James Shackleford is their brother.

Members of the Darden and Shackleford families are buried in an abandoned graveyard in the middle of a large cultivated farm on the west end of Beaman Old Creek Road.

Dowery’s great-grandparents, Green and Emma Shackleford, are buried there. Her grandmother, Mollie Shackleford, the oldest of Green and Emma’s 12 children, also is there.

“The W.A. Darden family used to own a lot of property, even during slavery. They were more well known than Shacklefords,” Dowery said.

The patriarch of the Shackleford clan was Charles Shackleford. Green had nine siblings, and he and his wife, Winnie, had 12 children. Most of the black Shacklefords in Greene County are their descendents, Dowery said.

“They were born during slavery, 100 years before I was born,” she said as she looked out over the few remaining tombstones.

Dowery has made it her mission to restore the cemetery and to locate and verify the final resting places of family members in unmarked graves.

“This effort came out of a family reunion. Some of the older ones know it is here. It’s hard to get to. Unfortunately, a lot of folks don’t even know it’s back here,” she said.

Two years ago, a focused effort was started to research land records, locate the site and get it cleaned up.

Dowery has gathered oral history and pored over deeds to learn more about the trail of property owners.

Dowery is proud to have learned that Charles Shackleford, her great-grandfather, had purchased land in Greene County in 1880, and she treasures the copy of the land deed she obtained.

One of Charles’ sisters, Vinie Shackleford Lane, is said to be buried in the neglected cemetery on the old Darden Farm, but the possible graves of Charles and others of that generation are not marked, Dowery said.

Vinie was in the household of William Darden, who had owned slaves.

“Slavery was over, so she was likely in the household as a domestic servant. She was 13,” Dowery said, adding it is history of the close relationships between the black and white families of Dardens and Shacklefords that she wants to preserve.

Jean Flynn Bowen and Robin Bowen now own the farm.

Dowery is working with Simon Cox, a surveyor with McDavid Associates in Farmville, to plot the boundaries of the graveyard.

One of their 90-year-old cousins told them everyone knew it as the “Darden Graveyard.”

Dowery said it would be legally recorded as the “Darden-Shackleford Cemetery.”

“The attorney had us have it surveyed and marked off so it can be recorded. We plan to fence it in and get a sign posted by the road,” Dowery said.

Dowery also is researching birth and death certificates, and other historic documents to piece together past generations to try to determine who might be buried in the unmarked graves. The challenge is that not all births and deaths were recorded, she said.

To help at least locate graves, Dowery hired Jeff Dail, owner of Southern Locations Service of New Bern. Dail typically uses his ground-penetrating radar equipment to locate utilities.

“We don’t hunt graves very often,” he said.

Dail spent several hours in November examining the underground contours in the soil that indicate a grave exists.

If dirt is dug up or disturbed, even if it is covered again, it will show up on the radar, Cox said.

“The Lord made it one way, and then we disturb it and make it another way. And it shows up,” he said.

One small tombstone in the cemetery is that of a relative names Forbes, born in 1848. Another is that of Allen Speight Sr., born in 1875.

Speights married several of the Shackleford siblings, Dowery said.

Dowery found the death certificate of a cousin who drowned in a well at approximately 5 years old in 1956. According to the family, the child is supposed to be buried there, but there is no tombstone.

“I can’t stand the fact that the cemetery has been abandoned,” Dowery said. It is to our shame that this has happened. These are our ancestors. We are who we are today because of them. They shouldn’t be forgotten.”

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