John N. Smith Cemetery Restoration and Preservation Incorporated

Southport, NC


The John N. Smith Cemetery Restoration and Preservation Incorporation endeavor to ensure the physical integrity, the community relevance and the historical significance of the John N. Smith Cemetery.


In 1874, before Smithville was named Southport, John N. Smith was buried in a tract of land along Leonard Street. In 1880 that tract of land later became know as John N. Smith Cemetery. Since then, this cemetery grew to 3.5 acres and became the final resting place for an estimated 600 souls, each one a member of Southport's history.

Often cemeteries are the only remaining artifacts of a community's early residents. By making connections from the present to the past, the John N. Smith Cemetery can serve as an inspirational starting point for showing how all races are connected by historical events. If Southport loses the assets its only African American cemetery represents, the connective tissue that binds people together disappears. However, once a chronicle of the factual history of the cemetery is realized the result will be pride, respect and appreciation among Southport's residents. The preservation of the cemetery can have a unifying influence on Southport while enabling many persons to reclaim a heritage that might otherwise be loss for the ages.

The John N. Smith Cemetery Restoration and Preservation Incorporated seek partners to support the cemetery and ensure that its future is maintained forever as a unique and respected site for celebrating an honorable past.

The urgency to restore the cemetery comes as a result of disappearing gravesites, and the aging and death of persons with knowledge of the cemetery’s known inhabitants. The preservation of the John N. Smith Cemetery has a historical and spiritual significancethat is an essential part of the Southport community. Its perpetual care will remind us of

the lives and the contributions made by local black citizens towards Southport’s growth and development. Many of the persons interred there were slaves, farmers, teachers, businessmen, laborers, domestic servants, homemakers, and other professionals. Veterans dating from the Civil War and subsequent military campaigns are interred in the John N. Smith Cemetery.


The John N. Smith Cemetery was formally established in 1880 when the trustees of the African American Methodist Episcopal Church in Smithville(Southport) purchased a two acre tract of land for the sole purpose of making it a grave yard. An additional 11/2 acres were added later.

In those later years a cemetery committee made up of representatives from five local black churches sold burial plots to members of their respective congregations and their families. This committee's resources were insufficient to adequately preserve headstones or provide on-going general maintenance. Furthermore, no permanent record of persons interred there was kept. Estimates indicate that perhaps as many as several hundred may be buried there without grave markers. As a result, ground radar penetration is needed to locate these unknown sites. A Global Positioning System (GPS) will be used to provide location information of unmarked as well as marked sites. The cemetery is also in need of a major "facelift" to reach a desired goal of parity with the other two public cemeteries in Southport.

The John N. Smith Cemetery is the site of Memorial Day Commemorations. The burial locations of known military veterans are cleaned and decorated with red, white, and blue arrangements for the occasion.

Today, the John N. Smith Restoration and Preservation Inc. is a third generation cemetery organization. Continuing to represent the community’s African American churches, the committee members remain passionate about honoring the history embodied by the cemetery.

To better enable the goals for the cemetery to be realized, the organization has recently drawn additional community wide members to the cause. Increasing participation has brought new energy and resources to the forefront.

In 2015 the committee incorporated as John N. Smith Cemetery Restoration and Preservation Incorporated received 501(c)(3) non-profit tax exempt status.

The goals of John N. Smith Cemetery Restoration and Preservation Incorporated are:

1. Preserve all records, monuments, headstones and grave markers.

2. Restore cemetery structures and any systems that support the structural integrity of the grounds.

3. Install such improvements to cemetery grounds as to create a safer, cleaner and more pleasing environment.

4. Implement security measures and create new methods to ensure the headstones, grave markers and grounds will be protected.

5. Create an environment of beauty whereby the lives of those interred therein shall be remembered and celebrated.

6. Promote public awareness of the cemetery’s historical and cultural value.

7. Research the history of John N. Smith Cemetery and its inhabitants.

8. Raise funds for the purchase of equipment or materials for use on the site.

9. Plan and carry out cemetery based events, such as the Memorial Day celebration.

10. Provide ongoing public interest programs for resident and visitor edification at such locations as the Southport Library, Visitors Center and the Maritime Museum.

11. Engage local schools in oral history projects for Black History Month, Martin Luther King Day as well as year round educational programs.

To date, the following initiatives have been completed or are underway:

Site visit and mentoring by staff of the North Carolina Department of Historical Conservation.

Board members compiling historical data about known persons buried in the cemetery.

Received volunteer manpower contributions made by city beautification committee and others in clean up and painting efforts.

Survey completion of the 3½ acre site.

GPS mapping of known gravesites to be completed by mid­ January.

Expanding news coverage by local newspapers, cable TV and other media.

Acquired 501(c)(3) non-profit tax exempt status.

Mass mailing of appeal letters to individual prospects.

Listings and preparation of grant proposals and contacts.

Raised $5,000.00 through donations and other fund raising activities.

Recruited volunteers to fill committee assignments.

Fundraising Campaign Items Include:

Create and publish public education materials that include oral histories and other documented accounts of the lives and contributions of the interred.

Ensure regular maintenance of the cemetery.

Ground radar penetration study.

Repair deteriorating headstones and install grave markers.

Produce and print a map that identifies burial sites, walking paths, and more.

List the cemetery in the National Register of Historic Places.

Design and implement a landscaping plan.

Install onsite signage and directional signage on major roads.

Construct onsite informative “table top” weather resistant plaques.

Install attractive and durable perimeter fencing.

The estimated total cost for these improvements and related technical support is $75,000.00.

Fundraising Goals and Activities

With a capital campaign goal of $75,000.00 and a potential general operating budget estimated at $15,000.00 per year the board of directors will employ various strategies to generate the funds:

       · Individuals, civic organizations and corporations targeted for one time recognition contributions.

       · Foundations that provide capital grants with request varying in size.

       · Annual fund raising campaign to include appeal letters to individuals and businesses.

The board of directors realizes these financial objectives are high but are pleased to date by the interest this enterprise has garnered. A consistent commentary has been “this recognition and work is long overdue and necessary”.


The Custom of the Seashells

The use of seashells was customary in earlier times for marking as well as decorating graves. Every year local residents would proceed armed with yard tools to the cemetery to clear away accumulated debris to ready it for the annual Memorial Day service. The finished task of pulling weeds and replacing seashells would unquestionably be the sign of readiness for the memorial ceremony. Some of the graves still bear evidence they were once covered with seashells.

The practice of using seashells to mark graves has been traced back to an African belief that the sea shell encloses the soul's immortal presence.

There was a prayer to the mbamba sea shell: Strong as your house you shall keep my life for me. When you leave for the sea, take me along, that I may live forever with you.

Even into the twentieth century some Gullah explained the use of shells on graves as representing the sea:

The sea brought us, the sea shall take us back. So the shells upon our graves stand for water, the means of glory and the land of demise.

Earlier ancestors adopted the custom of east- facing west tombstones based on the belief that when Jesus returns the departed will rise from the grave already facing his direction.


 Map of the cemetery


Search and Rescue Dogs locate graves101 0175.1