Back when the quickest way to get to Duke was by horse and buggy, Miriam Wilson Jacks liked to sleep in a feather bed at the edge of her family cemetery.
The TJ Rigsbee Family Grave Yard is now embedded in the Blue Zone, but Jacks’ kin continue to look after the tombstones she loved.
Her daughter, Rosalynde Jacks Robertson, has her finger on the pulse of the nineteenth century. She uses a table that predates the Civil War, fashioned from a fallen walnut tree in the Duke Forest. She has a walnut cradle that has been in her family since 1882, a cozy nook in which she and all her siblings slept as babies.
“If your mother had special dishes or a special piece of jewelry, if it meant something to them and you love them it’s going to have a special place for you too,” said Robertson, 57.
Robertson, who resides in southern Virginia, says this explains why she and several of her relatives devote time and money to tending to the final resting place of ancestors who died long before they were born.
“It’s a sacred place,” she said. “It’s just something that the family wants to maintain. It’s a labor of love.”
Her ancestors’ graves are surrounded by a three-foot tall stone wall and a sea of parked cars. In the second lot of the Blue Zone, there are about a dozen tombstones dating back to at least 1861. Per tradition, the dead were buried with their feet pointing East so they would rise facing the sun, said Jean Anderson, author of the book “Durham County,” who surveyed the graveyard in the 1970s.
Students churn past the cemetery constantly, but few stop to discern what lurks beyond the low wall. Even in 1956, Dukies were bewildered by it. A Chronicle article from Dec. 18 speaks of “the mystery surrounding the graveyard on the field East of the stadium.”
Even when students stream out of the parking lot, they are still on Rigsbee land. The Rigsbees, a prominent Durham family dating back to 1830, sold several hundred acres of forest and farm land in 1925 to the Duke family for $1,000, paving the way for West Campus.
Family legend holds that James “Buck” Duke once sat on the low stone wall and described his plans to build a university to Thomas J. Rigsbee Jr., before he became the last person laid to rest in the graveyard in 1924.
Shortly after his death, the Rigsbees’ stately mansion, one of Durham’s first, was torn down. The place where they had fed their pigs was cleared to make room for Wallace Wade Stadium. But, per the terms of a contract inked nearly a century ago, the graveyard remains untouched.
“The Rigsbee family shall have the right of ingress, egress and regress over such part of said land as may be reasonably necessary for burying their dead and for maintaining, repairing and otherwise providing for the up-keep of said burying ground,” the deed reads.
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Although it has fallen victim to vandals and tailgaters, the cemetery has fared better than most of its kind. Before Durham became a city, it was customary for families to bury their dead on their own land, Anderson said. Yet the cemeteries were often ploughed when families lost ownership of their “home places,” a typical southern phrase used to describe a homestead, making the TJ Rigsbee Family Grave Yard something of a relic.
The responsibility for caring for the graveyard has fallen to descendants including Robertson and Jackie Smith, an octogenarian who lives in Durham. Smith’s brother and husband pull weeds and mow the lawn. Robertson tends to the tombstones with a brush, clearing away soft green moss so the inscriptions remain legible.
Swinging open the low wrought-iron gate to enter the graveyard, a passerby can start to sketch the Rigsbees’ family tree, though the job is daunting. Some of those in the ground bore eight to 10 children.
The grave of Thomas J. Rigsbee Jr., is marked by a tall, ornate stone engraved with daisies and the phrase, “Although he sleeps, his memory doth live.” He rests in the shade of his father, whose unadorned tombstone lies some six feet back.
His first wife, Nancy, was buried at his side beneath a small, flat stone. The inscription tallies her time: 31 years, 6 months, 15 days. Her husband remarried twice after she died during childbirth.
Her grave is flanked by a small garden of jagged rocks that mark the burial places of children who died in the late 1870s at two, three and eight years old: Joseph, John and Virginia, respectively. Although their graves are unmarked, Robertson knows where they rest because the information was faithfully recorded in the family bible by her great-great-grandmother.
But the children account for only a fraction of the rough stones at the cemetery’s edge. After one of the last skirmishes of the Civil War, legend has it that the Rigsbees found the bodies of three Confederate soldiers in the woods with no papers to offer clues as to who they were. The Rigsbees supposedly buried the soldiers in freshly washed uniforms with preachers of all denominations standing by.
A Rigsbee descendant later explained that what they had done “wasn’t anything special. They just hoped someone would do the same for their folks,” Doris Tilley, chairman of the Durham County Old Cemeteries Committee, wrote in a letter to the University archivist.
Smith enjoys the story, but she noted there is no way to be sure. For all she knows, those buried there could have been soldiers, slaves or even her own kin.
“There are rumors, but I do not actually know. I’m sorry I never asked,” she said.
Robertson and Smith grew up visiting the cemetery. Their cousin, 68-year-old Betty Reiter, learned to drive in the open fields that once surrounded the graveyard. They lost the grassy knoll bit by bit with the slow expansion of the athletics complex. By the late 1980s, parked cars ringed the cemetery.
“I was dismayed to see the parking lot go up,” Smith said. “It was a beautiful hillside. But that’s progress I guess.”
Even amid the asphalt, Smith feels at peace walking in the cemetery, the last of her ancestral home place. Her father used to play all day in the woods that once bordered the cemetery.
Their second cousin, Louis Hazel, 68, grew up without any knowledge of the cemetery—his father, a Rigsbee descendant, was never much of talker, Hazel explained.
Always a fervent Duke fan, Hazel applied to Duke twice and was rejected both times. Trying to trace his family tree decades later, he discovered that matriculating at Duke would have been akin to coming home. His great grandparents rest in the parking lot.
When he visited the grave of his great grandfather for the first time two years ago, “it was informational but not emotional,” he said. His ancestors had been in the ground for so long.
For Robertson, the experience is something more. She does not know as much about the cemetery as she would like to, but she uses her imagination to fill the gaps in her knowledge.
“I walk around in there and I try to imagine what their life was like and what they would think of things now,” Robertson said. “It’s sort of one of those mystical kind of things.”