Joe Cobb with the City Farm/Old Lick marker at Coyner Springs. Photo by Randy Walker.

In life, they were poor and marginalized.

Some were residents of Roanoke’s City Farm, also called the Alms House, a residence of last resort for the indigent when relatives couldn’t or wouldn’t take them in. 

Others were African Americans, oppressed by racism, educated in substandard facilities, and offered limited career opportunities. 

In life, many had little rest. In death, at least, they found peace.

Only they didn’t — because their remains were dug up by the city of Roanoke and transferred to a cemetery outside city limits, to make way for a community college and an interstate exchange.

Of the more than 1,500 reburials at the East Botetourt Cemetery at Coyner Springs, only 28 are marked with individual stones. Three large stones, one for City Farm, one for Old Lick, one for both, mark the general area of the reburials. Engraved in all-capital, serif letters, the markers explain that the dead were moved in accordance with City Ordinance #13705 (City Farm) and  #14568 (Old Lick). 

Joe Cobb at Coyner Springs. Photo by Randy Walker.

Now Joe Cobb, a Roanoke city council member, is shining light on the posthumous journey of the City Farm and Old Lick dead.  

Coyner Springs Road winds through the valley of Coyner Branch, a stream which feeds Glade Creek in southern Botetourt County. Turning off heavily traveled U.S. 460, a driver immediately enters a peaceful green valley set amid rolling hills. The driveway to East Botetourt Cemetery is just past the Roanoke Valley Juvenile Detention Center. Cows graze beyond the cemetery’s fenceline, as if a piece of rural Ireland had been transplanted onto the 460 corridor. The sign marking the cemetery entrance is barely readable, and the dead may lack individual markers, but no one can say their final resting place isn’t beautiful. 

Cobb took a visitor to the cemetery on a chilly day in early April.

“What I’m trying to address is discovering the names of those ancestors that are buried here,” he said, standing near the City Farm markers. “And doing two things, essentially. One is creating a physical memorial … actually giving these remains names to the extent that we can and that we know. And, as we discover more of those names, we could add to the memorial.”

The memorial might be placed in the heart of the burial ground, he said. In addition, a kiosk near the entrance could relate the history. 

He’d also like to create an online portal “that would allow a visitor to … take their mouse and hover over the cemetery and identify by plot or section where their loved one or ancestor might be buried. When they do that, the name, maybe a picture, something would come up. And then there would be a section where they could actually add to that person’s story.”

Cobb, who’s also a chaplain at the Hermitage Roanoke retirement community, discovered Coyner Springs in December 2005 when he participated in a ceremony honoring indigent burials. 

He recalled his thoughts in a presentation at Christ Episcopal Church in Roanoke in 2021. “How many people other than those gathered [at Coyner Springs] that day even know this cemetery exists, and visit it?” he said. “And then I thought, what whispers could I hear in the cold brisk wind from the spirits of the people and the stories of the people that are buried there?”

The presentation, titled “Honoring Their Breaths,” can be seen here:

Cobb, 60, is from Wichita, Kansas. He has been a clergyman most of his working life. 

“I’ve always been drawn to the vulnerable among us, the marginalized, the kind of people who are unnamed, who maybe don’t have a voice, and finding a way to give them a voice and to honor their story,” he said. “That’s been a part of me my whole life. And I think when I first came to this spot, and began to discover the history of this place, the beauty of this place, it seemed to me that there was a sort of disservice done by not making a more intentional effort to name the people who are buried here. 

“And just thinking about it from a loved one’s perspective, I’ve talked to a couple of people who’ve said, my grandmother, my relative was buried in Old Lick, and now I don’t know where they are. When you lose that sense of place, to be able to visit that last place that you knew they were or thought they were, that can leave a pretty gaping hole or ache.”

City Farm Cemetery was located on the grounds of what’s now Virginia Western Community College on Colonial Avenue. The last remaining vestige of the City Farm is a 1925 brick dormitory which now serves as VWCC’s Workforce Development Center. 

Burials at the cemetery started in 1929 and averaged 15 to 18 per year, according to a Feb. 8, 1959, Roanoke Times article. 

A digitized version of the City Farm’s “Register of Admissions and Discharges” can be examined at virginiaroom.org, a website maintained by the Roanoke Library’s Virginia Room. The register lists the “name of pauper” and other data. Some of the residents left alive. For others, City Farm was their last stop on earth. Causes of death included hemorrhage, tuberculosis, dropsy, syphilis, “kicked by horse,” “murcurial poisoning,” “old and broke down,” homicide, premature birth, drowning, motor vehicle accidents, influenza, cancer and heart trouble.

Infant Jenkins, white, was stillborn on Sept. 3, 1930. Lonnie Copeland, a Black man aged 30, died on Sept. 5, 1930, of unknown chronic disease. Moses Link, a Black man aged 80, died on July 17, 1932, from “infirmities of old age.”

In the late 1950s, Roanoke was growing and leaders wanted the land for college buildings. 

The city had 123 acres at Coyner Springs, purchased in 1938 for a tuberculosis sanitarium, according to a 1975 article by Carl Andrews.

City ordinance 13646, signed on March 9, 1959, established “a cemetery on the City’s real estate in Botetourt County, known as Coyner Spring[s], … for the interment of indigent persons, who may die a charge upon the City, and unknown persons, dying within the City, or on real estate owned by the City and situated beyond its corporate limits …”

An April 28, 1959, newspaper article states:

“Removal of bodies from the old municipal cemetery adjacent to the former City Home on Colonial Ave. SW, to a new cemetery at Coyners [sic] Springs will begin this fall … City Council yesterday adopted a resolution authorizing City Manager Arthur S. Owens to have the more than 500 bodies disinterred and reburied on city property in Botetourt County … The removal will be done under provisions of a state law which, among other things, requires supervision by a licensed mortician … The resolution also directs that each grave be identified by [a] suitable marker …”

The University of Virginia library maintains an online collection of news footage shot by Roanoke’s WSLS television station from 1951 to 1971. One clip, dated Oct.27, 1959, shows city workers pulling caskets out of the ground at City Farm. 

There’s no audio on the clip, but the report was transcribed as follows: “The task of moving 550 bodies from the old Roanoke City Cemetary to the new resting place at Coyner Springs is better than half completed. Workmen exhumed 20 bodies today. All told 228 gaves have been moved to date. Work has been going on now for several weeks. Dr. Margaret Glendy, City Health Commissioner, say with good weather, the work should be finished in about 14 more working days. The work is under the supervision of Dr. Glendy and a registered funeral director. Bodies are being moved because the City has established a new cemetary to make way for an Industrial Training School. Dr. Glendy says the City has a difficult task but is trying to do a commendable job.”

The video can be seen here:

https://search.lib.virginia.edu/sources/uva_library/items/uva-lib:2217184

The remains were buried individually, not jumbled in a mass tomb. “So it wasn’t like they were all just thrown in, they were carefully placed,” Cobb said.

An interfaith ceremony to consecrate Coyner Springs was held on Oct. 14, 1959. Video can be seen here:

https://curio.lib.virginia.edu/view/uva-lib:2254935

“This shows footage of a funeral tent from [John M.] Oakey’s and underneath that tent are the medical examiner, the director of the health department and several clergy,” Cobb said. The clergy included representatives from First Baptist Church, Temple Emanuel, St. Andrew’s Catholic Church, and the Roanoke Valley Ministers Conference. 

A March 8, 1961, memo from Glendy to the city manager’s office seems to indicate that the bodies were reburied with markers, perhaps just numbers, but if so, it’s unclear what happened to them, as no individual markers could be found in the City Farm section during a recent visit to Coyner Springs.

Virginia Western opened in 1966 on the old City Farm property. 

Every day, thousands of motorists pass by a hillside off Orange Avenue across from the Berglund Center. This is “a section of the cemetery owned by First Baptist Church Gainsboro which is what remains along Orange Avenue, and there was a city-owned section of the cemetery which extended beyond that, very close to the back side of Booker T. Washington School,” Cobb said in the Christ Episcopal presentation. 

A Roanoke Times photo caption, undated but probably from around 1960, states: “This ancient Negro cemetery on Orange Avenue Northeast lies athwart the projected spur to downtown from Interstate Route 81. The section shown beyond the fence in the background is city property, run down, overgrown with weeds, its tombstones the constant targets of vandals. In the foreground lies a portion belonging to First Baptist Church, Colored which is comparatively well kept.”

Of the hundreds of Old Lick graves which were moved, only 28 were identifiable by markers. Those markers were moved along with the bodies. The city tried to contact family members to identify the other remains, but “there just weren’t a lot of family around that either remembered, or that wasn’t a long enough period of time for them to be notified,” Cobb said.

A Roanoke Times article of Oct. 1, 1961, said, “If no one steps forward, officials say, the identities of all but a few people in the cemetery forever will be lost.” 

The Department of Public Works moved the bodies starting on Oct. 5. Each set of remains was placed in an individual box. 

The City Farm stone at the Coyner Springs cemetery, a beautiful and rustic setting about one mile from heavily traveled U.S. 460. Photo by Randy Walker.

The marker at Coyner Springs reads:

GRANT THEM ETERNAL REST

HERE REST 933 BODIES MOVED IN OCTOBER 1961 FROM THE CITY-OWNED SECTION OF OLD LICK CEMETERY, LOCATED AT ORANGE AVENUE AND 2ND STREET, N.E., ROANOKE, VIRGINIA, TO PROVIDE FOR INTERSTATE HIGHWAY 581 TO CONNECT WITH INTERSTATE HIGHWAY 81, IN COMPLIANCE WITH ORDINANCE NO. 14568, DATED SEPT. 18, 1961.

The Coyner Springs cemetery is now owned and maintained by Serenity Funeral Home, Cobb said.

The Virginia Room keeps a collection of death certificates from City Farm and Old Lick. 

“Many of the graves were unmarked and as a result, the remains were reinterred in mass graves at Coyner Springs,” according to the library’s description of the collection. “Nine hundred thirty-three graves were removed from Old Lick/First Baptist cemetery. Over 550 graves were removed from City Farm cemetery. In an effort to help identify individuals relocated to Coyner Springs, this collection includes death certificates of over 2,600 individuals originally interred in Old Lick/First Baptist Church and City Farm cemeteries. It is not definitively known which of these graves were relocated as the remains were not identified during the relocation process.”

The death records can be seen here:

http://www.virginiaroom.org/digital/files/original/13/5906/Interments_in_Old_Lick_First_Baptist_Church_City_Farm_Cemeteries_1912-1960.1.pdf

Coyner Springs is the subject of Cobb’s dissertation for the Doctor of Ministry program at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. His first draft is due in October. 

“Ideally what I’d love to do is to create a series of events that invite people into the history of City Farm, Old Lick and Coyner Spring Cemetery … so they can come to the place and see them, because I think when you’re in the place, the depth of the stories that emerge is even more powerful.”

Funding for the memorials could come from the city, the state, and citizen donations, he said. 

Roanoke Vice Mayor Trish White-Boyd said, “I think it would be really nice to have some sort of memorial and I’m not sure if that would be a historical marker, or a listing, because I don’t know that they have all of the names. But just to place a historical marker there would really be good.”

Old Lick is one of the sites that will be targeted in the Hidden In Plain Sight project, which seeks to bring attention to local Black history. “I’m excited about possibly shedding more light on this cemetery,” she said.  

“Many African American families were hurt by this,” Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea said. “It could mean reconciliation for a horrible mistake that was made.”

Randy Walker

Randy Walker is a musician and freelance writer in Roanoke. He received a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was formerly a staff writer on (as it...