Volunteers Reclaim Historic Cemetery In Roanoke

Old wooden sign for Old Lick Cemetery on a metal gate. Photo by Audrey on Find A Grave

More than 30,000 cars pass Old Lick Cemetery every day, but for decades the wooded hillside near Interstate 581 has been a mystery to many in western Virginia, Roanoke-Lynchburg reported (via Microsoft Start).

Darnell Wood grew up nearby. “And I had walked by this cemetery many times in my youth coming from Lincoln Terrace area and going to the old Sears and Roebuck. Never knew that African Americans were buried here,” Wood told us. “All I saw was a dilapidated cemetery that needed cleaning up.”

Today, that “dilapidated cemetery that needed cleaning up” is getting the attention it deserves.

One Saturday a month, weather-permitting, dedicated volunteers fan out across the property to reclaim the headstones, and the history they represent, from the bushes, trees and vines that had overtaken the cemetery.

“Can I ask you what it’s like working in this thicket,” we asked volunteer Matt Elliot. “Well, for the most part, not too bad, except when you run into these with the nice thorns on them,” he said.

Last Spring, we found Elliot in a tangle of vines. But he told us the work had been satisfying.

“When I first started, it was clear over the other side where this is all bare ground now. This is all stuff that I’ve been a part of help clearing. To me that’s pretty awesome,” he said.

Ellen Forbes Stick is the founder of the group Friends of Old Lick Cemetery. She was an educator with Roanoke City Public Schools in 2019, when she envisioned a project to get social studies teachers involved in the community.

With each visit, the Friends of Old Lick Cemetery reveal more memorials. And every headstone has a story.

“We actually have a photograph of Ellen Banks,” Stick said in a recent interview. “Her lifespan began at the culmination of the Civil War and carried through World War II. So as a teacher, and I’m always a teacher, there’s a lot to discuss.”

And the history doesn’t end at the hillside overlooking the interstate.

A portion of the cemetery owned by the city of Roanoke stood in the way of Interstate 581, and in 1961 more than 900 graves were moved to the city cemetery at Corner Springs.

Joe Cobb was attending a memorial service there 20 years ago, when he first saw a stone monument marking the area where the remains were relocated.

“And that really, was mysterious to me and intriguing,” Cobb said. 

Now, Roanoke’s Vice Mayor, Cobb recently completed his doctoral dissertation ‘Honoring Their Breaths,’ the focuses on the connections between two cemeteries. 

“I began to imagine the stories of the people who were buried here and the stones that had been consumed by nature and what would it be like to uncover those stories and to breathe new life into them,” Cobb said.

Soon, there will be a sign with a brief history, and links to online resources where people can learn more. Plans for a more accessible trail are taking shape. A fundraise campaign will pay for new fencing. And there is hope that one day a small parking lot will help people access the area.

< Return To Blog I am very pleased to know this area is being taken care of. I'm a Roanoke native, and never knew any thing about this cemetery. I'm interested in the stories of people who lived here before me/us. Thank you to all involved in this.
Gwen Lloyd 29/02/24

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