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Cherry Hill Cemetery Holds Reminders of ECU’s Past

by Suzan Flanagan, Ed Reges and Rex Rose
Photos by Suzan Flanagan and Ed Reges
Guardian contributors

cottenRagsdale, Jarvis and Cotten are familiar street names to many in Greenville. By no coincidence, they’re also some of the names found on buildings of East Carolina University’s campus. So easily overlooked as we go about our day-to-day business, these names serve as memorials to individuals without whom Greenville and the university would not be what they are today.

The words and symbols on the tombstones, and even the shape of the monuments to Thomas Jarvis, William Ragsdale and Sallie Cotten tell us not only about these individuals, but provide clues to the values of their society, through which we can reflect on our own.

The Setting: Cherry Hill Cemetery

foundersIn the middle of downtown Greenville, West 2nd Street dead-ends at Cherry Hill, the city’s oldest city-owned cemetery. Across the street, people pop in and out of the post office, largely unconcerned with the history within their view. Among the approximately 1,400 people buried in the five-acre cemetery are former prominent citizens whose names we see on local landmarks and street signs, including Jarvis, Ragsdale, Cotten and other founders of East Carolina Teacher’s College, the predecessor of East Carolina University.

It’s an old cemetery: some tombstones are broken, covered in lichen, weathered beyond legibility or missing entirely. Local historian Roger Kammerer, in his article on the cemeteries of downtown Greenville in a 2007 survey of cemeteries by the Pitt County Historical Society, reports that Methodists and Episcopalians were the first to purchase land here to use as a graveyard in 1833 and 1838, respectively. In 1873, Tilman R. Cherry, the cemetery’s namesake, donated adjacent land to serve as a public cemetery. Within 25 years, the Methodist and Episcopalian sections joined the public graveyard, by which time a section for African Americans had also been established.

cemetery 1In some cases textual markers were placed generations later, as was done by the Pitt County Historical Society for Jarvis, Ragsdale and David J. Whichard.

symbolsThough these monuments represent individuals a century removed from us, many of the symbols that speak for the interred are readily recognizable. Rickey Abbot, a local funeral director, said in an interview that religious symbology is common and often easily interpreted: crosses and christograms (symbols indicative of the name of Jesus) denote creed. Other symbols are not so simple to interpret: lambs, a common image, may represent innocence or the blood of Christ; floral patterns may symbolize some aspect of the individual or, like many floral choices today, could have been chosen for aesthetic purposes.

Visible History: Face Value

Thomas Jarvis

JarvisJarvis Hall, the first structure on the campus of East Carolina Teacher’s College, was named for Governor Thomas Jarvis (1836-1915), who was present at the college’s groundbreaking ceremony. Described on his graveside plaque as “the Grand Old Man of North Carolina,” Jarvis’ obelisk is perhaps the most prominent memorial in the cemetery. Its shape, Egyptian in origin and used by many societies including the Freemasons, is commonly understood to represent ascension. Equally grand is his obituary, which claims, “the teachings, the character and the life of this distinguished hero will live on as were the days which marked his rapid climb to fame and importance.”

A disabled civil war veteran, United States senator and ambassador to Brazil, Jarvis was distinguished among his peers for his force of personality and networking. Local historian Kammerer, in a phone interview, described Jarvis as the “muscle” behind the founding of the college, thanks to his power and connections. Kammerer described three other crucial to the college’s founding as well: James L. Fleming, who Kammerer called the “legislator,” Ragsdale (the “educator,”) and local businessman William H. Dail, Jr., who admitted fifty years after the fact to having tampered with the vote to ensure funding (the “sneak.”)

William Henry Ragsdale

Though Jarvis was no stranger to education—he founded his own school in Pamlico County prior to the foundation of the Teacher’s College-William Ragsdale (1855-1914) is identified as the educator. Ragsdale’s obituary in the Raleigh News & Observer focuses on his dedication to service, citing the extraordinary length of his position as Pitt County school superintendent which began “long before the county was able to pay a man to devote his entire time to the work.” The obituary quotes J.Y. Joyner, a name recognizable to anyone who’s passed by the library at the center of campus: “I am sorry to see him go. He was one of the finest of men, and had done valiant service for the cause of education in Pitt county. His place will be hard to fill.”

RagsdaleMuch like that of Jarvis, Ragsdale’s monument is largely unadorned. His is a smaller obelisk than Jarvis’, with his first and middle initial alongside his last name. In contrast, Ragsdale’s wife, Betty Perkins Sutton’s marker is ornately decorated. Her monument, which Ragsdale likely had a hand in erecting, resembles a log, identifying her as a member of the Woodmen of the World, a society dedicated to family, community and country. Floral imagery and a rose, a symbol of compassion, spray the stone log.

Sallie Southall Cotten

Sallie Cotten (1846–1929), one of the few women considered an ECU founder. Her contributions to the establishment of ECU, however, pale in comparison to the work she did in North Carolina and across America on behalf of women’s rights.

Cotten worked for the betterment of society and the rights of women by helping to establish the North Carolina Federation of Women’s Clubs. These clubs, according to her biography, written and privately printed for the family in 1935 by Bruce Cotten, were important in the Progressive Era because they allowed women an opportunity to work for civic reform in areas such as “libraries, education, child labor reform, and improvement in institutions of correction.” In fact, Kammerer said in an interview that Cotten helped to establish what we know today as the Sheppard Memorial Library.

That Cotten helped establish a library is not very surprising considering that, in addition to her work as an activist, she was also an author and poet. As an activist, Cotten “published a book of Negro folklore, and the proceeds from purchases of that book went into an education fund for women seeking higher education,” according to Dr. Wendy Sharer, an ECU English professor who has written a book on the history of the women’s groups during and before the suffrage movement.

Because of the importance Cotten placed on women and education, she saw ECU, a women’s college dedicated to educating teachers, as a chance to further two of the causes she cared so much about. Thus, “to have [the college] here meant a lot to her,” said Kammerer.

Value and Virtue Set in Stone

“What we praise in others,” says Dr. Gerald Prokopowicz, chair and professor of history at ECU, “reflects our ideas, our virtues. And that does very much evolve over time.” He explains that monuments can “indicate to others what our values are at a given time by what we memorialize; they can be there to teach others, …intimidate others, …inspire others, or console others.” Memorials offer a way to evaluate the values at a given time, Prokopowicz says, and can help us “come to terms with our past.”

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The choice of words and symbols used to remember these outstanding individuals not only speaks for the individuals interred, but also for the society that memorialized them. Jarvis and Ragsdale’s original monuments at Cherry Hill were unadorned—perhaps a testament to the humility implied by their dedication to service. Indeed, dedication to service is a virtue that garnered the utmost praise in the obituaries of these individuals. Dedication to family, religion and education recur frequently; society venerates them by paying heed to their personal accomplishments. Achievement and ambition were highly valued.

Invisible History: Digging Deeper

Intermediate Memorials

Jarvis plaqueAsked about the plaques placed by later generations, Prokopowicz said, “Any memorial tells the story of two eras: of the era being memorialized, and also that of the people who created the memorial.” Plaques added to the grave sites by later generations reveal social changes. The Pitt County Historical Society added plaques to memorialize participation in the foundation of East Carolina University. Prokopowicz suggested that perhaps this interim generation decided that the individuals involved in the university’s founding deserved to be recognized for their dedication to education as its value increased over the years.

Prokopowicz identified another possible motive for the plaques, though. Since they attribute to the deceased the founding of East Carolina University (as opposed to East Carolina Teacher’s College), the Historical Society must have placed them after 1960-a time when the newly emerging ECU was facing competition from other North Carolina universities for funding. Attributing the foundation of the college to these people, Prokopowicz suggested, is an attempt to solidify the identity of the university, and to praise them for being a part of something implicitly grand.

Societal Comparison

Equal rights and women’s liberation movements have changed the social landscape since the time of Jarvis, Ragsdale and Cotten. The memorials placed at the times of their deaths reflect the perspectives of their society on race and gender.


Racial issues rooted in the south’s past remain a source of controversy (remember the recent debate surrounding changing the name of Aycock Hall, named for former governor Charles B. Aycock?)

The original charter of East Carolina Teacher’s College was specific: The school was for educating white people. In Arcadia Publishing’s Campus History Series on ECU (2013), authors John Tucker and Arthur Carlson explain, “the [ECTS] charter affirmed the ‘separate but equal’ mentality of the day.” Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) condoned segregation as the prevailing method of education at that time. In his 2006 history of the university, No Time for Ivy, former ECU historian Henry Ferrell Jr., notes that the school was desegregated in 1956 and the term “white” was removed from its charter, in compliance with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling.

As governor of a post-Civil War, pre-segregated southern state, Jarvis made political decisions that would be unacceptable by current standards. Indeed, his obituary praises his role “in securing an amendment to the constitution that relieved the eastern counties from the dominance of negro rule …[, for which] feat he received the lasting gratitude of his home section of the state [Jarvis was from northeastern Currituck County].”

Though we may condemn Jarvis for racism, it was likely expected of him by his constituents, whom he was bound by duty to represent. Actions like Jarvis’ perpetuated the status quo of his time—a status quo still apparent when visiting Cherry Hill Cemetery. Hedges separate the black section from the white section. Few intact tombstones remain in this barren, sloped expanse where grass fails to thrive. Tombstones—some crudely constructed, others featuring intricate engravings—are broken, bent, and toppling. A majority of the graves in the black section seem to have been marked with pieces of wood or never marked at all. These monuments sit in sharp contrast to their expensive engraved marble counterparts in the white section of the cemetery.


cotten stoneThe historical markers also reveal differences in the customs of memorializing men and women. By the simplest comparison, Sallie Cotten’s small grave site memorial is shadowed by Ragsdale’s, and utterly pales in comparison to Jarvis’ monolith. Even more can be derived from its text: Cotten, like nearly all women interred in Cherry Hill, is remembered as a wife and mother before any other achievements.

Finally receiving the right to vote nine years before her death, Cotten had worked to improve not just the welfare of women but the whole of society. According to Sharer, Cotten’s contemporaries held a range of opinions on her “radical” work, from thinking “women shouldn’t be out there in public doing that kind of thing, that it was not womanly of them,” to being supportive and even involved. “Then there were,” Sharer adds, “a lot of men who viewed these groups as not detrimental or unwomanly” because they just didn’t see them as “all that serious.”

The obituaries of Cotten, Ragsdale and Jarvis shed more light on their society’s views on gender. Regarding cause of death, Jarvis garners five paragraphs, Ragsdale two and Cotten one.

Terms of strength, vitality and militant language—“wear off the attack,” “iron constitution of the man held him up and he rallied,” “remarkable vitality,” “brave fight,” “deadly disease which attacked him”—fill Jarvis’ and Ragsdale’s obituaries.

Cotten, on the other hand, is simply noted to have died at the home of her daughter after “she had been ill several weeks.” Men fought death; women submitted to it.


The names that surround us on campus and throughout Greenville are more than just designators; they are memorials and reminders of great individuals from bygone eras. They are bridges that connect the present to the past, aid our understanding of our predecessors and, therefore, of ourselves, our city, our places in our community, the virtues we value and the changes that individuals working together can effect.

Suzan, Ed and Rex are all graduate students studying English at ECU. This article derives from their research into cemetery rhetoric.

For a list of resources which the authors found useful, see here.

At ECU this fall, John Tucker is offering a course on the university’s history: (HIST 3907) Pirate Nation: An ECU History. The classes will meet Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9:30 a.m.

One Response

  1. John O'Brien says:

    Very much enjoyed this article. I live around the corner from this cemetery and often walk through it.

    I would just like to point out that although there have not been plots available for purchase for many years the cemetery still has new burials from time to time. The Moye family section has graves from the 19th century and recent burials were made in 2003 and 2014.

    I appreciate the information on the Black/African American section. The comments were true and made very diplomatically. For my taste perhaps a bit too diplomatically, in particular I would question what “Racial issues rooted in the south’s past” could possibly remain a controversy?

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