“Through professional error an initial archaeological survey of the airport for…determining cultural impact of planned construction failed to observe what ground evidence did exist, did not thoroughly check documentary sources, and performed insufficient test excavations to identify the cemetery.”
—An Archaeological-Historical Study of the Bryan Cemetery and Site 31CV25, Simmons-Nott Airport, New Bern, North Carolina, 1979.
Only bones stopped those ’dozers
set to ready a barren field for a runway:
bones, and bottles, brass buttons,
buckles, bits of bayonet, and brick
subsumed beside the vanished
Colonial road and Bryan plantation.
Lurking in the sassafras and briars
the deer, the screech owl, knew—
as the wild know fire
without ever having felt a flame,
or sense betrayal in a collar—
before any engineer unrolled
expansion plans that here
those old bones, hidden,
human, redolent of suffering,
lay—not at rest: waiting,
crossed, sorely, sorely,
in 500 crossless graves
(holding mostly babies and the young),
forgotten except in local lore
and by the tenant farmer,
a Mr. Laughinghouse who buried
close by a couple of cows and pigs.
He knew how the liberated
settled behind Union lines, created
a community, the freedmen’s first,
in a bloody slave-dependent state.
One cemetery was “the Far.”
The Near was closer to the church.
It was for that later faraway world war
that soldiers, to construct an air base,
claimed and cleared that corner
of the earth, obliterating what markers
—marble, concrete, or shard—
might have anchored as if forever
where people once enslaved
lived free to grow
their own food, build
their own homes, keep
and bury their own children.
[Other poems by Jeanne Julian]
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