As we stand in front of the sunken burial plots, rectangular concrete outlines of graves partially protruding from an otherwise unassuming field, I ask Tommy Beatty why he got involved with efforts to identify the dozens of people believed to be buried on this small plot of land at the intersection of Remount Road and Youngblood Street. He looks me in the eye and tells me matter-of-factly, “My own impending death,” then lets out a big belly laugh.
To be clear, the 72-year-old Beatty seems by all accounts to be in great physical and mental health — with his sense of humor intact too — but whatever drove him to take up this pet cause, it has since become a calling.
Over the past three years, the process has brought him in touch with relatives he never knew he had, with whom he’s since joined forces to identify the people buried at Shuman Cemetery, sometimes called Youngblood Cemetery. After many years of what look to be false reports that to be a forgotten slave cemetery, the group of descendants have compiled the most detailed known account of who’s buried at the site.
Along with Margaret Shuman Treece and James Shuman, both of whom are also believed to be descendants of folks buried on the site, Beatty has traced the history of the Shuman and Beatty families that once owned the land, identifying 15 people they believe to be buried there.
Now a group of Charlotteans with no connection to the Beatties or Shumans are working to restore the site, raising money for a fence and hosting a community build day scheduled for Oct. 24.
They hope the event will be the first step in a more comprehensive process to locate every grave on the site and identify who is buried where.
‘Cemeteries should have a certain amount of respect’
Inspired by February news reports that the land was home to a forgotten slave cemetery, Will Dalen and Jason Tapp began planning ways to rightfully honor those who were buried there. Unbeknownst to them, Beatty, Treece and Shuman had for years been researching the site, compiling evidence that their ancestors once farmed the land around it and are now buried there.
There’s no evidence that either families held slaves, nor is there reason to believe formerly enslaved people are buried at the site, though Dalen maintains that regardless of who’s buried there, the cemetery should be preserved.
“Slaves or not, I feel like cemeteries should have a certain amount of respect,” Dalen says during a recent visit to the site with Queen City Nerve and Beatty.
Dalen’s efforts will begin with a starter fence — nothing dug into the ground as ownership of the property is still in question. Once those issues get cleared up, however, he and Beatty hope to see a more established effort to recognize the Shuman Cemetery.
“Regardless of who’s buried here, something should be done, and it would be easy to do something,” Dalen says. “In this area, all the old stuff gets torn down and then new stuff gets built, and it just seems a little sad … So maybe it’s a little bit nostalgia, a little bit of community engagement.”
The first news report we could find calling Shuman Cemetery an abandoned slave cemetery came in a Charlotte Observer article from 2008. In it, the late Vernon Herron, retired minister and founder of Comprehensive Genealogical Services (CGS), said he found the site while searching for the burial plot of his ancestor Richard Herron, believed to be born around 1810 and to have had 11 children, 10 in bondage.
After emancipation, Richard was believed to have farmed in the Steele Creek community, then died around 1895, though no record of his death exists.
According to tradition, Herron’s body would have most likely been buried in his family cemetery, a site chosen by a former slaveholder.
Acting on a tip from a man who found reference to “a nearby Negro graveyard” in a will from 1827, folks working with CGS came across the abandoned Remount Road burial plots in 2004 and believed them to be the long-lost Herron cemetery. In the article, Herron told of an emotional return to the land, but no confirmation was ever made.
The site would pop up in the news again every six years, it seems. In 2014, WSOC reported on new efforts to preserve the cemetery, saying then-Southwest Service Area Code Leader Eugene Bradley “found evidence” that the cemetery held formerly enslaved people, while acknowledging that it was sometimes called the Shuman Cemetery.
In February 2020, WSOC reported on a group called Periwinkle 1619 that aimed to renew and preserve the cemetery, as they believed it held the bodies of formerly enslaved people. Queen City Nerve was unable reach anyone involved with Periwinkle 1619.
Who’s Buried at Shuman Cemetery?
It was the 2014 report that grabbed the attention of Margaret Shuman Treece, who lives in Kansas City. Her father had spent years researching the Shuman family tree and believed his ancestors were buried there on Remount Road.
Margaret “inherited” his interest in the site back in the ’90s, she told Queen City Nerve, and she’s been working on identifying the folks buried there ever since.
Support a Free Press: Become a Queen City Nerve donor
Beatty, who lives in Matthews, didn’t get involved until 2017, as his interest in genealogy had grown during retirement.
“I knew a fair amount about my mom’s family, but I didn’t know anything about my dad’s family,” he recalls.
Both grandparents on his father’s side died before he turned 1, and it took Beatty six months just to find out his great-grandfather’s name. As he kept digging, he eventually came to William C. Beatty, his 4x great-grandfather, who owned about 200 acres of land in the area, including where the cemetery is located.
William’s daughter, Margaret Catherine, married William Henry Shuman in 1858, and Tommy believes William Beatty bestowed a large portion of the land to them as a wedding gift.
Over the years, using obituaries and other public records, a group of genealogists and familial descendants have put together a list of 15 people they believe to be buried at the site. The list includes two children, Dumpie Shuman and Baby Frankie. The group believes a third child’s grave is at the site, as three child-sized graves are visible today, though who is in it remains a mystery.
A Goal to Preserve
Jason Tapp runs the popular SpookyCLT Instagram account and website, which focuses on a mix of lighthearted tales of local hauntings and bona-fide Charlotte history. He joined with Dalen to help get some recognition for the cemetery after seeing reports on the news and social media about the Periwinkle 1619 movement and a recent incident in which someone spray-painted “Slaves lived here” on the sidewalk in front of the cemetery.
As he and Dalen did more research, it became clear that it was not a slave cemetery, but a family cemetery that once sat on Shuman Avenue, which became Remount Road at some point after the Shumans sold the land in the 1920s and ’30s.
The last Shuman thought to be buried there, 27-year-old Madge Williams Shuman, passed away in 1934.
Tapp learned the city has been aware of the cemetery for some time. There’s a partial list of people believed to be buried there on the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library website, and Charlotte Center City Partners has been doing basic upkeep on the property for some years with help from the maintenance crew at the nearby Silos South End apartment complex.
Tapp and Dalen wanted to do more.
“Even once it started developing [that it wasn’t a slave cemetery], it’s still a burial ground, and if you were to go out there today, you would find bags of dog crap and litter,” Tapp says. “No one deserves to be treated that way.”
Current property records show the land listed simply as “grave yard” with no owner. No one has paid taxes on the land for many years.
Despite the fact that the site is for all intents and purposes abandoned, city officials say no real work can be done until someone goes through the process of claiming it. Tommy Beatty has looked into doing just that, but says the costs of legal fees, liability for past upkeep, property taxes and needed maintenance — including removing a large tree that looms over the graves and is believed to be dead — is too much for him.
Dalen figures a fence will do for now, as the group continues to look into options for doing more comprehensive work, including not only recognizing the site as a known cemetery but potentially funding the scientific process that could confirm the years-long genealogical efforts of the Shuman descendants.
“Our plan is to keep it simple in the beginning, just build a simple fence here, and then maybe use that as some awareness-building, raise some money to do some further research,” Dalen says. “Doing a real investigation on this site to figure out who is where is going to be expensive.”
What Lay Ahead
Any such efforts would most likely involve Bill Bibby, cemetery supervisor for the city of Charlotte. Much of Bibby’s job involves inspecting abandoned cemeteries, of which he says, “There are a lot more than what people realize” in Charlotte.
Bibby has been working in Charlotte for five years, arriving well after the Shuman Cemetery was discovered, so he’s not especially familiar with it. He says the work he’s seen from the Shuman descendants is convincing.
“That’s usually a big part of my job to find out what is and who is buried there,” Bibby says. “But I wasn’t here then. I’m not going to say there aren’t any slaves, but more or less it’s the Shuman Cemetery.”
Bibby does have experience with the processes that could be carried out on the land once it’s finally claimed by someone. While the Shuman descendants have backed up their research with plenty of evidence, the list is still not 100% confirmed by any means. The family is not sure of exactly how many graves are even at the site.
In his past jobs, including as director of Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, Bibby has overseen many grave-finding efforts. Options include LiDAR, or Light Detection and Ranging, which he says “isn’t 100% fool-proof,” and using a rod called a penetrometer that’s driven into the ground.
He also described a more comprehensive process that he referred to as “skelping” in which an expert removes 6-8 inches of topsoil to see where the dirt has been disturbed so as to find hidden burial plots.
Support a Free Press: Become a Queen City Nerve donor
There are only a select number of skelpers in the United States, Bibby says, and the costs can run high.
That’s all in the future, however, and the Oct. 24 community fence-building event will simply serve as a first step, allowing some folks involved in the effort to meet for the first time and discuss how to move forward from there.
For Tapp, who’s long held a passion for history in a city that often gets a bad rap for tearing said history down, getting involved in this effort in the heart of a rapidly changing South End is symbolic.
“I feel like South End is almost the face of ‘Charlotte has no culture and no history,’” Tapp says. “So the fact that in the heart of South End we are uncovering this mystery of Charlotte history is a bit ironic.”
For Beatty, it’s personal. When I ask what it means to him that folks with no relation to the site are working to get it some recognition after all these years, he gives thanks.
“I believe that my second-great grandmother and her parents, who would be my third-great grandparents, are here, so this just tickles me to death,” Beatty says. “I’ll be out here helping for as long as I’m alive.”
Maybe it’s just the sight of the graves that brings all that death talk out of him.
If you’re interested in participating in the Oct. 24 volunteer day, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Become part of the Nerve: Help us continue to connect community and culture and tell the overlooked stories of everyday Charlotte. Get better connected and become a monthly donor to support our mission and opt-in to our tri-weekly newsletter.