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Cemetery nearly forgotten in shadow of I-40, concrete jungle

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GREENSBORO — Odell Hayes (1908-1985) is spending eternity by a hotel, a convenience store and The Exotic Carwash.

His grave is just off Guilford College Road, where Swing Road and Interstate 40 meet. It’s in a weedy rectangle of a cemetery so obscured by trash bins and overgrown evergreens that it might as well be invisible.

Hayes’ plot is better than most; his grave hasn’t sunk into the earth. But tall grass nearly blocks the inscription etched onto his tombstone.

“Daddy,” it reads. “We love you.”

The cemetery, less than a quarter-acre from end to end, belongs to Reynolds Chapel Missionary Baptist Church. The mostly African American congregation had a sanctuary on adjacent property until the 1990s, when it moved a half-mile south.

Hayes and about 25 others stayed behind in the cemetery, a few in graves marked with simple metal tags.

Today, few people even know the cemetery exists, leaving it all but forgotten.

No one can do much about it, either.

There are more than 20,000 cemetery plots in North Carolina, according to an estimate by Rusty Tysor, the executive vice president of the N.C. Cemetery Association.

“You’ll drive down the road and see some trees and a couple of gravestones,” Tysor said. “That’s part of the 20,000.”

But only 175 of those — “licensed perpetual care” cemeteries — are monitored by the state, he said. They’re required to create trust funds for maintaining the grounds and the graves, and they can lose their licenses to operate if they don’t comply.

The others go unregulated. That includes family graveyards, city cemeteries and church-owned plots like Reynolds Chapel’s.

But at least in Greensboro, few cemeteries are as hidden by a concrete jungle

On one side of the cemetery is the three-story Clarion Hotel. On the other — the Family Fare BP and its gas pumps.

The Exotic Carwash, where patrons can get their cars washed by topless women, sits just behind.

Imagine Alberta Davis Randleman’s surprise when, in 2004, her mother’s funeral procession pulled into the convenience store and walked around the fence to the gravesite.

“I didn’t know the cemetery was back there, either — and I grew up in that area,” said Randleman, who discovered other relatives buried there.

“I couldn’t believe it when I saw it.”

Randleman’s mother, Savannah Louise Davis, probably was the last person buried there. She said her brother visits the cemetery often, keeping their mother’s grave looking as nice as he can, planting roses atop her plot.

Family members talk about the cemetery’s condition, Randleman said. But without state regulators having a say, there’s nowhere for family members to go — except to the church. And the Rev. James Crawford, pastor for the past four years, said he hasn’t received any complaints.

Crawford said this week that he has never visited the cemetery. From time to time, he said, members go and pick up the empty beer bottles and chop down the tall grass.

The congregation isn’t planning to do much more in the future, he said. Moving the graves would be too expensive, not to mention disrespectful.

The cemetery predates Crawford, who said he knows little about its history.

County records show that in 1990, Reynolds Chapel sold most of its property at 628 Guilford College Road to BP Oil Co., which sought to build a convenience store.

The congregation moved to 327 Hibler Road in 1991, according to a cornerstone there. It kept the deed to the cemetery — which explains why it’s now wedged among the motel, the convenience store and the exotic car wash.

Most marked graves date to the 1950s through 1980s — like Laura N. Kellam’s. Born Dec. 23, 1897, she was remembered on Feb. 18, 1950, as “A Sweet & Loving Mother.”

But what about Mary S. Means, who clearly meant to rest in peace next to her husband, Forrest?

Their shared tombstone lists her date of birth — May 20, 1901.

It lists no date of death.

​Contact Margaret Moffett Banks at (336) 373-7031.

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