At the entrance to Raleigh, N.C.’s Rochester Heights neighborhood lies a cemetery where notable African American residents are buried, including Superior Court Judge George Royster Greene, the first Black person to be elected judge in Wake County.
His headstone also bears the name of his wife, Ruby, who is still very much alive and, at age 89, is working to restore the cemetery where she will one day join her husband.
Originally maintained by Lightner Funeral Home, the site fell into disrepair some years ago. Headstones were stolen, others became buried beneath a tangle of vines and other growth. Graves began sinking.
The sight of a piece of Raleigh history crumbling before her eyes spurred Ruby Powell Greene to act.
“From an historical standpoint, it needs to be preserved,” said Greene, who founded the nonprofit Friends of Hillcrest Cemetery Restoration in 2016. “This was the only cemetery developed and owned by Blacks in Raleigh. There are 15 veterans buried there, who go all the way back to World War I. The fact that my husband is buried there, that’s historic, too.
“With all the gentrification going on, after a while there will be no record that Black people lived, worked and died here if you don’t preserve something of historical significance for the generations to follow and let the better angels know that this is worth preserving.”
Since Greene formed the nonprofit, individuals have donated money to pay for repairs and upkeep. But more was needed.
A chance meeting with Marty Clayton, Duke Energy’s director of government and community relations in Raleigh, led to contributions from the Duke Energy Foundation. That financial support will be used to begin filling in graves that have sunk.
In addition to funding programs that focus on social justice and racial equity, Duke Energy supports organizations that protect the environment, work to end hunger and revitalize communities.
“We’re proud to support and recognize the efforts of community leaders like Mrs. Greene who’ve worked all their lives to make a difference for others – and she is still successfully doing so at a very spirited 89 years old," Clayton said. "Helping preserve this cemetery honors the lives and legacy of those who made such a difference in our African American community and for Raleigh as a whole.”
Located at 1905 Garner Road in southeast Raleigh, the 3-acre cemetery was originally part of a 60-acre parcel of land known as the Lightner Farm. The Lightner family opened a funeral home and began burying people at Hillcrest in 1920 and possibly earlier. In the late 1950s, the surrounding 57 acres were developed into the Rochester Heights subdivision where Black families began settling.
Greene said that after her husband’s father, William Lawrence Greene, died in 1961 his wife bought eight plots at Hillcrest for their family. The elder Greene earned his master’s degree from Cornell University in 1929 and served as executive director of the N.C. Teachers Association.
At that time, Hillcrest was well-maintained, Greene recalled.
Her husband, Judge Greene, was buried there in 2013. In addition to 20 years on Wake County’s District and Superior courts, Greene is also remembered for his civil rights work before becoming a judge. He represented college students arrested at lunch counter sit-ins in the early 1960s and successfully sued the city of Raleigh on behalf of a Black plumber who sought to bid on city contracts.
Another prominent African American buried in Hillcrest Cemetery was Willie Dean “Pat” White, who was revered for his athletic prowess while still in high school. He died of cancer in 1964 at age 19. His headstone salutes him as “unquestionably Raleigh's greatest multisport All-American athlete.”
Bruce Lightner, who inherited his family’s funeral home, told the News & Observer in 2014 that he unsuccessfully lobbied the city to take over the cemetery. He said he didn’t have the money to keep it up; at the time, the city said it didn’t have the money either.
Greene, who retired in 1987 after 30 years teaching music in Raleigh-area public schools, had volunteered in the community in various capacities so it came as no surprise when she stepped up to lead the effort to maintain and restore the cemetery.
Her hope is that once the cemetery is in better shape, the city will reconsider and agree to maintain it.
Members of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity helped clear out the overgrowth. Students from N.C. State University completed a map of graves with existing headstones. Some of the headstones were illegible. But of the ones they could read, they concluded that Sabrinnia D. Robinson was the earliest-born person buried there. She was born in 1863 while the Civil War raged. She died in 1949.
The city used ground penetrating radar to locate unmarked graves. Greene said there could be as many as 1,200.
In 2020, the city granted the cemetery historic designation as “a planned, 20th-century cemetery that served Raleigh’s African American community during the racially segregated Jim Crow era through the present. The cemetery is historically significant at the local level as the city's only known private cemetery that was developed and managed by African American entrepreneurs.”