By Matt de Simone
The Botetourt County Historical Society welcomed Roanoke City Councilman Rev. Job Cobb as he met with county residents of last month at the Blue Ridge Library for an event entitled “Honoring Their Breaths”—a presentation about his research on 1950s urban renewal in Roanoke that led to African American graves from Old Lick and City Farm cemeteries being relocated to Coyner Springs Cemetery, in Botetourt. Cobb shared his journey of discovering Coyner Springs Cemetery and how learning more about the history of Coyner Springs opened up more about the City of Roanoke.
Cobb’s currently working toward his doctorate in ministry. His final project is entitled “Honoring Their Breaths: When the Bones of Our Ancestors Breathe Forth Reparation and Justice”—a historical explanation of the City Farm, Old Lick, and Coyner Springs Cemeteries. Around 1,500 graves were removed from City Farm and Old Lick and reinterred at Coyner Springs in the 1950s and 1960s with no identifying markers. The only markers are three large stones identifying when the city reinterred the bodies at Coyner Springs.
Cobb was first introduced to Coyner Springs in December 2005. For years, a homeless memorial service took place at Coyner Springs Cemetery on Dec. 21 to remember community members who died homelessly. Cobb was invited to the service that year and explored the cemetery. He noticed the three large stones and discovered the transferred bodies years ago. Cobb was startled to learn on one of the stones that the City of Roanoke removed 933 bodies from Old Lick Cemetery to make room for the 581 interchange located off of Orange Avenue in Roanoke.
He showed slides documenting the history of the City Farm and Old Lick Cemeteries. The old City Farm Cemetery was a plot of land off Colonial Avenue, now part of Virginia Western Community College’s campus. Old Lick Cemetery is located at 1250 Orange Avenue NE near Carver Avenue behind Sheetz. The city-owned section of Old Lick is currently in the process of being maintained and cleared.
Cobb envisions the Coyner Springs Cemetery to be where residents can partake in what Cobb referred to as “creating a healing ritual in memory of ancestors moved from the City Farm and Old Lick Cemeteries to Coyner Springs.” During the presentation, Cobb explained some things that could be added to Coyner Springs and Old Lick—like kiosks at remaining stones marking history—to better inform the public of the cemeteries’ histories. He also mentioned the possibility of a database where people can add information about the bodies buried in the cemetery.
Cobb thanked Rena Worthen of Botetourt for all of her help in gathering information about the history of City Farm, Old Lick, and Coyner Springs Cemeteries. At the end of Cobb’s presentation, Worthen presented Cobb with a list of individuals buried at Old Lick and City Farm that she comprised with help from the Buchanan Library.
A Roanoke group called Friends of Old Lick—dedicated to volunteering time out of their weekend to clean up the old cemetery—continues to work on the land’s upkeep. The Friends of Old Lick recently cleared the remaining grove of paradise trees, grapevines, and hawthorn bushes.
Listed below are the remaining 2022 dates for the Friends of Old Lick’s cleanup efforts on Saturdays. Most dates are on the second Saturday of the month, starting at 8:30 a.m. during the summer and returning to 9 a.m. later this year.
Saturday, August 13 at 8:30 a.m.
Saturday, September 10 at 8:30 a.m.
Saturday, October 8 at 9 a.m.
Saturday, November 5 at 9 a.m.
Saturday, December 10 at 9 a.m.
Between July 18-21, Friends of Old Lick will rent a stump grinder to eliminate the stumps at the top of Old Lick’s hill and elsewhere.