Hillcrest Cemetery: A Southeast Raleigh Gem Worth Preserving

NEW Rochester Heights and Hillcrest Cem Pic

Historic Hillcrest Cemetery is a planned African American cemetery established around 1920 as an affordable option for Black families to bury their loved ones. Today, Friends of Hillcrest Cemetery Restoration, Inc., a group of nine community volunteers from Southeast Raleigh, oversees the site.

Located at 1905 Garner Road, Hillcrest was the brainchild of the founders of Lightner Funeral Home, who needed a place for burials. Near the entrance of Rochester Heights, a post-WWII subdivision built for African Americans during segregation, the cemetery sits on slightly more than three acres of land privately owned by the family of Clarence E. Lightner, Raleigh’s first Black mayor.

Hillcrest Cemetery is a significant part of Raleigh’s history and stands as a testament to the resilience and community spirit of Southeast Raleigh. It is the only identified cemetery in the city that was developed, owned, and operated by African Americans. Established in the 1920s as an affordable burial option for Black families during segregation, its historical importance cannot be overstated.

Since 2016, the Friends of Hillcrest have been tirelessly working to revive and preserve the cemetery. Their efforts include regular clean-ups to remove weeds and other overgrowth, monthly landscape maintenance, and projects to repair crumbling tombstones and sunken graves. They also strive to maintain the legacies of those buried there by replacing misplaced markers and locating the families of the deceased. Preservation efforts are made possible by the generous support that individuals, businesses, and organizations give to the group’s annual fundraising campaign.

“We need the next generation to realize there’s something in the Black community that’s worth saving,” said Ruby Greene, a member of the Friends of Hillcrest. In the long term, the hope is to appeal to the City of Raleigh to take over the maintenance and upkeep of this gem that is worth preserving.

Hillcrest is the final resting place for prominent African Americans, some of whom made Southeast Raleigh home, including Greene’s family. Among those buried there are William Lawrence Greene, who received a Master’s degree from Cornell University in 1929 and became executive director of the North Carolina Teachers Association; his son and Ruby Greene’s late husband, George Royster Greene, the first Black judge elected in Wake County who served 14 years as a District Court Judge and six years as a Superior Court Judge is also buried there; All-American athlete Willie Dean “Pat” White; and 15 veterans who served in WWI, WWII, and the Korean and Vietnam wars.