Through a generous grant from the Jandy Ammons Foundation, the Wake Forest Historical Association has conducted a survey of the “Old Cemetery” of Friendship Chapel Missionary Baptist Church and the findings are impressive.
Archaeologists and historians from New South Associates, Inc., a company specializing in the research and documentation of historic sites, surveyed five designated sections of the 1.64 acre cemetery and discovered evidence of 567 burials and a single mass grave. Extrapolate these findings to include the entire parcel–which also contains areas with terrain too steep or blocked to survey–and it’s very likely the full number reaches 600 and beyond.
The survey was conducted through the use of ground penetrating radar (GPR), a remote sensing technique that’s non-invasive, relatively quick, and highly accurate. Soil changes detected underground were matched to a detailed surface map of headstones, foot stones, property boundaries, field stones, depressions, and other funerary memorials. The comparison charts produced are included in this online Story Map, along with a history of Friendship Chapel Missionary Baptist Church and various church photographs.
Located in the woods between two major developments in the Rogers Road area, the “Old Cemetery” dates to the period before the Civil War and originally served as a nighttime gathering place for Christian slaves who met to worship in secret. After Emancipation, freed slaves from around Forestville worked alongside leaders of Forestville Baptist Church to form their own congregation. This became Friendship Chapel, named for the cooperation surrounding the joint effort. It was the devout spirituality of Nelson Ligon, a former slave who attended services in the balcony of Forestville Baptist, that led to the establishment of the new congregation. To this day he’s revered as its founding member.
By the 1880s, members of Friendship Chapel had constructed a church building and dedicated their original meeting place as a cemetery. It was used for burials for approximately seventy years, ending in the late 1940s or early 1950s when it was deemed full and a new cemetery was started behind the church.
In the mid-1980s, the church produced a VHS documentary about its history and founding families. A copy of this video was provided to the museum by Dr. Enoch Holloway, longtime pastor of Friendship Chapel, and it proved a valuable source of images. Although there are few headstones remaining at the “Old Cemetery,” these early twentieth century parishioners are thought to be among those buried there.
In the latter part of the twentieth century the older, wooded site fell into disuse. But it was never forgotten. The congregation of Friendship Chapel has continued to guard the property. Members are well aware of its presence, its general boundaries are known, and descendants still recall the familiar names on the limited number of stone or concrete tombstones that have survived the years.
Now that the GPR survey is complete, future steps will include efforts to protect and preserve the site with a fence, natural buffer, and historical signage. If the cemetery meets the required criteria set by the state, there also are plans to pursue local landmark status.
This cemetery is many things to the community: sacred ground, green space, and archaeological site. It is the final resting place for generations of African-American residents of Wake Forest, Forestville, and the surrounding area–including those who made the journey from slavery to freedom.
The Wake Forest Historical Association is grateful to the congregation of Friendship Chapel Missonary Baptist Church and to the board of the Jandy Ammons Foundation for providing an opportunity to assist in this research and preservation effort.
This project is the result of teamwork by the Wake Forest Historical Association, the Jandy Ammons Foundation, New South Associates, Inc., and Friendship Chapel Missionary Baptist Church. It is led by Dianne Laws and Roger Shackleford, members of the WFHA board and Friendship Chapel. The grant committee also consists of Carol Paulonis, whose initial interest and research inspired the survey proposal; Beverly Whisnant, a founding member of the WFHA and project advisor; Mandi Keith, a native of Wake Forest who brought a fresh perspective and new ideas; and Jennifer Smart, assistant director of the Wake Forest Historical Museum. The GPR survey was conducted by archaeologist Sarah Lowry and the associated research was completed by historian Ellen Turco.