“I stood beside him and shared the mournful moment,” Braveboy-Locklear, a Pembroke native who now lives in Ocean Isle Beach, wrote in an essay she penned about the experience. “Tears followed the creases on his brown face. I wept with him. That day the spirits sang.”
Among the weeds, vines and trash accumulating in the dusty cemetery, Manthy “Lady” Locklear’s headstone was hidden. It was a place Jasper Locklear hadn’t visited since he moved back to Robeson County in 1919.
“The sacred Indian burial ground, neglected for more than a half century, had become a dumping ground for household items,” Braveboy-Locklear said. “Rusted bed springs lay on a toppled headstone; fallen tree branches undermined others. Wild brush made passage around graves difficult.”
The two were visiting the Croatan Indian Memorial Cemetery, the final resting place of more than 30 Croatans who migrated to that area between 1890 and the early 1920s. They left behind a rich history, including a church and school, as well as the cemetery.
“The memory of the neglected Indian cemetery left behind that Labor Day weekend in 1975 left a sorrow in my heart,” Braveboy-Locklear wrote.
What she saw that day weighed on her heart for years, until she made a commitment to clean up the cemetery once a year.
In July 1988, Braveboy-Locklear re-visited the site with her husband Horace Locklear, his father and his father’s wife. They found the cemetery in a similar condition of disarray.
“Winds, rains and summer sun had worn wooden markers — four — at the site. Fires, started by farmers burning off the surrounding field, had charred the markers, obliterating anything that might reveal the dead’s identity. Ground indentations indicated numerous unmarked graves at the site,” she said.
When car trouble idled the group after the brief cemetery visit, the owner of the land, Frank Simons Jr. and his wife Dottie Simmons, happened to stop and offer help.
When Braveboy-Locklear mentioned establishing a preservation project for the cemetery, a tradition was born.
“After weeklong discussions involving descendants of the families buried in the cemetery, the general consensus was that … ‘Somebody needs to do this. Something has to be done …,’” she said.
She has coordinated annual trips to the cemetery since the first trip in 1988. On the weekend of Nov. 11 this year, the group will again visit the centuries-old cemetery that holds much of their history.
While there, they tour the rural area where their ancestors lived and died during the post-Civil War era.
“They go to retrieve fragments of their heritage and to pay tribute to their dead who lie there,” Braveboy-Locklear said.
Following the Civil War, many Croatan Indians, including ancestors of Lumbee Indians, left their homes and followed the railroad tracks on foot or wagon to the small town of Adabelle.
They worked in the turpentine industry — seasonal, tough work. Workers stayed where trees produced the most profitable turpentine, often bringing their family with them. This created a community of almost 200 people over the three decades.
Many of them now lay in the cemetery surrounded by pine trees and watched by red-tailed hawks.
The cemetery, where the white granite gravestones and wooden markers face east, is the last piece of tangible evidence of the Croatans that settled in Adabelle.
On Nov. 18, 1988, 36 people made the 300-mile trip by bus to the town eight miles north of Claxton, Ga.
“For more than a dozen Croatans … in the group, the journey was the first since they left the village 69 years earlier,” Braveboy-Locklear said. “… Several wept unashamedly upon discovering the gravestones of loved ones.”
Equipped with garden tools and prepared with luggage, the group of mostly Croatan descendants arrived at the cemetery. The place is marked by a wooden sign hanging on a metal post with red letters that announce “CROATAN.”
They pruned, raked, picked up trash and pine cones, and pruned some more. They also sprayed the grounds with herbicide.
“We always go in winter because that is rattlesnake country,” Braveboy-Locklear said.
A meal and tour given by the Simmons followed, and as the weekend ended, they held a worship service. Flowers were gently placed on gravestones.
They have succeeded in getting the site designated as a historical site. They also placed a granite stone near the cemetery entrance to honor those who lay in unmarked graves, and replaced the fence surrounding the burial grounds.
Loretta Oxendine of Pembroke has gone to the cemetery for at least six years. While there are no ancestors she visits, there is a young boy with the last name Oxendine buried there.
“It’s good fellowship and the experience and knowledge of going and seeing the place where our people lived down there and realizing the hardships they must have suffered while they were there,” Oxendine said. “But then they were able to make a living there and make it their home, that was inspiring.”
She has visited the site with her sisters as well as her husband, Herman Oxendine.
“It’s a way of keeping connected to our past,” she said.
Dennis Clark of Pembroke wrote in 1996 about his visit to the cemetery that year.
“I read each and every gravestone noting the names: Oxendine. Jacobs. Emanuel. Locklear and Bell. These names evoked mental images of people I know with those same names, some alive and some departed. It was a spiritual moment in my life that will be with me forever,” he wrote.
Delois Revels Clark, the granddaughter of Manthy “Lady” Locklear, said her mother would often tell her children about living in Adabelle, but never went back.
“It’s a lot of memories and it’s something to look forward to because we know our mother would appreciate that,” she said. “If she was here she would appreciate us going back ever year.”
The experience is something attendees hope to share with future generations.
“I have been somewhat encouraged by the show of new faces on the two most-recent journeys to the burial site,” Braveboy-Locklear said. “Yet the fact remains that the majority of Indian pilgrims taking the trip in years past fit the over 70 age group. More than a dozen have died … And younger descendants don’t seem to care. This truth is disquieting.”
Delois Revels Clark hopes that will change.
“We’re hoping this year some young people will go and get an interest in it,” Delois said. “I’ve talked to my children about it and I hope that they will continue to do it, I don’t know if they will, I just hope and pray that they do.”