By Bruce Frankel
Kernersville Historic Preservation Society Board Member
I cannot think of a better way to celebrate black history month in Kernersville than to acknowledge the St. Paul’s AME Cemetery, as well as recognize the incredible efforts of Sarah Friende Hamlin to preserve this historic town landmark.
Born in Kernersville in 1922, Sarah grew up in a proud family that placed the significance of education at the highest priority. She often spoke how her mom was committed to make sure each of her seven children would attend college.
There were no accredited high schools available for African Americans in the Kernersville area until Carver High School was established in 1936. Prior to that, students often had to live with another family member outside of the area to obtain a high school education. (Carver had to rely on textbooks donated from other schools to become eligible for accreditation.)
Sarah was excited to attend the first class made up of 8th and 9th grade students and loved sharing how she was in the ‘senior’ class all 4 years she attended the school. Not only was she in the first graduation class but she graduated as valedictorian.
Sam Hamlin was the second teacher hired for the school and Sarah went on to marry him years later. Sarah graduated college, became a teacher, and then owned and operated Sackie’s (her nickname) Florist and Gift Shop in Winston Salem for 41 years, which closed in 1989.
Sarah studied the genealogical records and family stories of her ancestors, some of whom share bloodlines with white people. “It is a part of history that we do not like to tell,” Hamlin said in an interview with the Winston-Salem Journal in 2013. “I have given it a lot of thought over the years. We have got to face up to it.”
In 1990, Sarah first cleared the underbrush and debris from the stone markers and gravestones from the cemetery at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Kernersville, where she was a member. It was a burial site for slaves and free blacks in the 1800s, and many of her relatives were buried there. At the time, it was an overgrown brush and wooded 1.25-acre cemetery on Main Street, making it dense and intimidating and one she was afraid to go into alone.
According to oral history, the graveyard was the burial ground for virtually the entire black population of the Kernersville community prior to the Civil War.
After the Civil War, several black members of the Methodist Episcopal Church, located on South Main Street, established a new church to be known as St. Paul’s M.E. Church. This St. Paul’s congregation subsequently purchased the Methodist Episcopal Church building and moved it to the site of the graveyard in 1873, becoming the first place of worship for the black community and the third established church in Kernersville. This occurred at the time the Methodist Episcopal Church congregation (later to become the Main Street United Methodist Church) built a new structure. In 1888 the St. Paul’s congregation (later to become the St. Paul’s United Methodist Church) moved into its present church building located at the corner of Church and New Streets where that church building remains today as a designated historical site. The land was donated by Hamlin’s great-grandparents, George and Sarah Elizabeth Taylor.
In 2001, Hamlin, suffering from poor health, turned the cemetery’s upkeep over to the Kernersville Historic Preservation Society. Through her tireless efforts, and the help of a restoration committee of interested community members, the Kernersville Historic Preservation Society along with the Town of Kernersville, various local civic organizations, scores of local school children, numerous Boy Scout Troops, and members of the business community have continued to restore and maintain this historic site.
Over the past 20 years, various members of the Kernersville Historic Preservation Society have taken active leadership roles to continue the work Sarah Hamlin started such as Paige Truelove. And for the last several years, Board Member Chris Gaugler has done an incredible job in facilitating the continued restoration and maintenance of the cemetery.
“Because of its terrain and landscape, St. Paul’s is particularly challenging to maintain. It is covered by a canopy of trees so there is a constant need to rake and dispose of leaves as well as collect branches and limbs that fall throughout the year. Volunteers are the primary source for cleaning up the cemetery.” Ms. Gaugler further explained, “Nearly three years ago, we initiated a Family and Friends Who Care Initiative which has helped significantly in the maintenance of St. Paul’s. Businesses, non-profit organizations, community organizations, local schools, and friends of the community have participated in this initiative. And we are always in need of more volunteers.”
Even during the pandemic this past summer our community stepped up to help. Using their ground penetrating radar equipment, the subsurface utility engineering team of Withers Ravenel donated their time and equipment and were able to find 88 unmarked graves at the St. Paul’s Cemetery.
And members of the Mt. Tabor Boy Scout Troop and Eagle Scout Candidate Jonathan Wearn donated park benches made for the cemetery as well as a platform for the cemetery trash cans.
The St. Paul Cemetery is easy to access and sits off South Main Street where it connects to Cherry Street just behind Cagney’s Restaurant. Open to the public, all are welcome to visit and stroll through this humbling and inspiring sacred ground.
As you walk through the cemetery, you realize that some simple protruding rocks are in fact actual grave markers.
Sarah Hamlin truly felt that it was important for people to have this history. She would often say, “I get asked, ‘Are any prominent citizens buried here?’ I tell them, ‘Everyone here is prominent.’ They made Kernersville what it is.”
To learn more or to volunteer, please visit the Kernersville Historic Preservation Society’s website at www.KvilleHPS.com.