History of the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery

Adapted from the Centennial Brochure, National Register Application, and Archival Collection Finding Aid.

The Old Chapel Hill Cemetery represents the broad spectrum of people who helped found Chapel Hill and its University, and who gave the town a unique place in North Carolina history.

The University’s Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies were the first to establish burial plots in the cemetery. The earliest recorded burial, in 1798, was that of 19 year old George Clarke, although the stone marking his grave dates from the mid-19th century.

There were no black church cemeteries in Chapel Hill in the 18th and early 19th centuries; consequently, the slaves of the village were buried in a segregated section of the Cemetery (Sections A and B), separated from the other sections (Sections 1, 2, 3 and 4) by a low rock wall, which still stands.

Dr. Joseph Caldwell, the first person officially titled President of the University of North Carolina, was interred here in 1835, but in 1846 was removed to a monument erected on McCorkle Place, on the main campus. At that time, University trustees considered a proposal to create a new cemetery at McCorkle Place, but instead chose to change the official name of the existing cemetery to “College Graveyard.” (Most town residents continued to call it the “Village Cemetery”.)

The Cemetery was used for the interment of many administrators, professors and teachers of the University, as well as public officials, prominent businesspeople, authors, artists, entertainers, and veterans of the armed forces.

In 1922, the University and the Town of Chapel Hill entered into an agreement for the Town to maintain the Cemetery and administer the sale of lots. The cemetery was expanded to its present boundaries in 1928.

In 1985, Rebecca Clark, a concerned community member, spoke to the Chapel Hill Governing Body, now called the "Town Council," about conditions in the cemetery. She gave a slide presentation showing sunken graves, damaged stone walls, rubbish lying on the grounds, and overturned and broken grave markers. Her exhibit prompted the appointment of a task force that recommended the development of a master plan to designate phased improvements.

The master plan was completed in 1987 and was modified to reflect current preservation practices by landscape architect David Swanson. The plan addressed the need to clarify ownership of the cemetery and to plan for continuing care of the property.

In 1989 the University of North Carolina and the State of North Carolina officially turned over ownership of the cemetery to the town of Chapel Hill.

Town work on the cemetery has included gravestone restoration, removal of invasive vegetation, planting of a lawn, bank stabilization, construction of a new gazebo, the compilation of an inventory of interments, public presentations to build awareness of the significance of the cemetery and the need to preserve its structures, and a successful application in 1994 to include the cemetery on the National Register of Historic Places.

A new task force was formed in 2004 to jumpstart continued improvements to the cemetery. The new task force called for improvements in lighting and pedestrian flow; ornamental fence restoration; the archiving of historic documents pertaining to the cemetery; and public outreach.

 

For more detailed accounts of the cemetery’s history and the kinds of monuments found there, go to the "Other Sources" page.