Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Magnolias of Pinewood Cemetery

I awoke to a cold rain this early October morning. Looking out the window at the dark wet streets reminded me of being caught in a warm rain at Pinewood Cemetery back in the springtime. Pinewood is in Charlotte, North Carolina. Charlotte is pretty far south, bordering South Carolina, where the weather is hot and there is ample pulled pork and hummingbird pie to eat no matter where you go.

Pinewood and Elmwood cemeteries coexist in the same complex. If not for my map, I would have thought the whole place was Elmwood. I never did see any sign indicating that the back portion of the cemetery - the less elaborate section - was Pinewood.  

The cemeteries opened together in 1853, Elmwood as a final resting place for city leaders and the well-to-do, Pinewood as a segregated African American cemetery and Potter’s Field (pauper’s cemetery) (ref). According to a report by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, "the complex was the center of a civil rights controversy in the late 1960s, when city councilman Fred Alexander spearheaded a successful campaign to bring down the chain link fence separating all-white Elmwood from all-black Pinewood." The fence had been erected in the 1930s under the Jim Crow laws of the early twentieth century, which "dictated not only where African Americans could work, eat, shop, and socialize, but also where they could bury their dead."
As I was driving around Elmwood, stopping here and there to walk around and check out the statues and monuments, the cloudy sky began to sprinkle a bit. I had just spent about an hour in this lovely cemetery complex and there was still much to see. So I jumped in the car to drive around the perimeter of the cemetery until the rain stopped. Hopefully, it would stop. I figured it wouldn’t last long since it was about ninety degrees.

I passed the groundskeeper on his riding mower, who appeared oblivious to the raindrops. I had to, however, stop to grab a few shots of the angel you see above. It was standing at the side of the road just peering at me! I drove along the road into Pinewood, where the tombstones were a bit more sparse and the grass patchy. A homeless guy was sitting on the stone perimeter wall. 

W.W. Smith mausoleum
Pinewood has two mausoleums made of colored brick, which are quite unique. My photos of them are nothing more than snapshots as it was raining pretty hard as I approached them. The structures were designed by W.W. Smith, the City of Charlotte's first black architect. One of the two is his own mausoleum. 

I saw the riding mower guy zipping across the lawn heading for a cluster of tall trees – seeking cover. As I sat in my car, AC blasting, shooting out the window, the rain was belting down. Rivers of red mud washed away from the side of the paved road and rushed down the hill. Oddly, the soil here is actually red. With all the grass, you don’t really notice this.

Groundskeeper on riding mower scurrying for cover in the rain

About ten minutes after the storm began, the sun was out and the heavy rain had slowed back to a sprinkle. The mower guy was still under the patch of trees as I nosed my rental car further down the road. I came upon a grove of enormous magnolia trees, laden with floral blooms as big as my head. The headstones and small monuments beneath the trees were dry as a bone. I figured I could duck under them and do some shooting from under the boughs.

Though I can’t smell (might have been dropped on the head as a small child), I imagine these wonderful white blossoms had quite a heavenly scent. It was so quiet and dry under the magnolias, the feeling was almost magical. As the sun came out and the humidity rose, the rain glistened on some fallen headstones nearby. I quite enjoyed these few minutes under the trees - the weather in my soul stirred by stronger winds, as writer James Thurber might say. I close the curtains on this essay with one of the photographs I made in the shade here, though curtains of marble never close.

Further Reading and Reference:

Survey and Research Report On Elmwood/Pinewood Cemetery  by the the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission