Stepping on the Graves of Slaves: The Apathy Toward Black Americans’ Burial Sites | Sojourners

Stepping on the Graves of Slaves: The Apathy Toward Black Americans’ Burial Sites

Grave marker at the Daughters of Zion Cemetery in Charlottesville, Va. Photo by Arthur Jones.

As a sizable section of land with a copious number of towering trees, generous foliage, and dead leaves and twigs that make crunching sounds beneath your feet, the plot on the University of Virginia campus looks like any other dense thicket of land in the area. Small steps lead to a wooden bridge over a creek, and upon looking closely, one may notice a few stones scattered amid the leaves.

In the past two centuries, these stones have been disturbed and displaced — any bystander wouldn’t be able to recognize the plot of land for what it actually is: a cemetery of the enslaved.

Maury Cemetery is surrounded by UVA student housing, but hardly any of the residents realize that they live next to a gravesite, let alone a slave cemetery, said Lynn Rainville, an anthropological archaeologist who specializes in the study of African-American burial grounds. When she first visited the cemetery, it took her two hours to locate it. Now, with construction underway, a previously incorrectly placed sign is now completely covered, making the cemetery practically unidentifiable.

This area was originally part of the Piedmont Plantation belonging to the Maury family, and among all the people the family enslaved, more than 70 are buried in this plot.

Although the University of Virginia administration made an effort to preserve the ground when they first discovered it, the plot looks very different all these years later. Many trees were cut through the use of machines, the area was disturbed, and the headstones removed or defaced, said Rainville.

Difficulty, or Plain Disrespect?

Misidentified or abandoned slave cemeteries aren’t unusual in the United States. In Virginia alone, Rainville estimates that at least 60 percent of the state’s slave cemeteries are unidentified, damaged, or built over — and even when preserved, very few people know about them.

“For every white burial, there is a black burial somewhere. But today, there are many more preserved white cemeteries than there are black cemeteries, especially slave cemeteries,” Rainville said.

Rainville explained that funerals are demarcated because of their sacredness — the fact that many slave cemeteries do not have boundaries around them and are unidentified, demonstrates the inequality and apathetic nature with which they are dealt.

The reasons for the disparity are varied — and range from limited resources to misplaced priorities.

“White communities have tended to have greater resources at their disposal to preserve and maintain their cemeteries,” said Adam Rothman, a history professor at Georgetown University. He added that in every walk of life, whether it be education, health care, insurance, real estate, or any other domain of the American economy and social life, white Americans have tended to be wealthier than their African-American counterparts.

But this February, Virginia passed House bill 1547, which directs funds to organizations that preserve African-American gravesites. Previously, the state only subsidized the preservation of cemeteries that contain graves of confederate soldiers. According to Rothman, this preferential treatment demonstrated the public’s commitment to preserving and honoring white heritage and is another manifestation of racial inequality in the United States.

Video story by Arthur Jones.

Preservation Efforts Move Forward

The Daughters of Zion Cemetery in Charlottesville, Va., is one of the few preserved African-American cemeteries today. Just a few years ago, it was trashed, vandalized, and had several broken, discolored and displaced grave markers.

It doesn’t look like that anymore. In 2015, Charlottesville’s Dialogue on Race sponsored a public forum that was focused on improving the conditions of this historic African-American cemetery. Subsequently, the Preservers of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery, a group that would devise a plan of action to guide the care and improvement of the cemetery, was formed. They submitted their plan to the Charlottesville City Council and received $80,000 to put this proposal into action.

The plot of land finally looks like a cemetery now, with head and footstones, and the occasional graveside flowers.

Edwina St. Rose, a member of the preservation team, is a descendant of Berkeley Bullock, who was enslaved in Earlysville, Va. After emancipation, Bullock moved into Charlottesville and started a train station and a restaurant, along with several other businesses and helped foster a community of African-American businesses and homeowners.


Edwina St. Rose. Photo by Arthur Jones

“The homes that they lived in are oftentimes no longer in existence, the neighborhoods are no longer in existence, so you have this one last place that you can come to, to remember the people who once lived,” St. Rose said.

Others throughout the region have started participating in the preservation effort. On April 18, Georgetown University formally apologized for its role in the slave trade in a “Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition, and Hope” during which some of the descendants of 272 slaves — who were sold by the Jesult order connected to the school in the 1830s — spoke. While the school recently named a building after Isaac Hawkins, whose name was listed first among the slaves on the sale documents, some students in Georgetown University started the Tombstone Restoration Initiative to repair the graves of those sold.

Lucy Merrick was sold at the age of 10 to a Louisianan plantation; students are working with Georgetown Memory Project, a non-profit founded by Georgetown alumni, to restore her grave. Her tombstone, which is in the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church Graveyard in Maringouin, La., is neglected and damaged. Milan Chang, a senior at Georgetown, joined other students to sell wristbands saying “Remember Lucy Merrick” for $2.72 on campus, raising a little over $1,200 to restore Merrick’s tombstone.


Sales of wristbands featuring "Remember Lucy Merrick" helped raise $1,200 to restore her gravesite. Photo by James Abate

“We are currently looking at how to continue this initiative for other graves that are in the same condition and figuring out new ways to engage with students,” Chang said.

The Importance of Preservation

But preservation efforts are not just about documenting history. Cemeteries are sacred sites that both honor the dead and offer space for connection.

“[A funeral] was a place for shared grief and collective expression of their own values,” said Rothman, who is also a principal curator of the Georgetown Slavery Archive, a project that involves uncovering Georgetown’s history with slavery and making the information available to the public.

The enslaved did not just attend funerals to honor and mourn the dead, but also for their practicality.

Because this was one of the few times family members who had been separated or been sold to other slave owners could reunite and other members of the community could get together, the enslaved would also use funerals to find marriage partners or as a means of meeting their wives and children, said Rainville.

These cemeteries are also reminders of one’s faith. According to St. Rose, gravesites remind her of the fragile and unpredictable nature of life.

“It [death] is part of the life cycle—ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” she said.

To Bernadette Whitsett-Hammond, a member of the Daughters of Zion preservation team, who has spent every Memorial Day at the ruined cemetery to pay respects to her ancestors, protecting and preserving these cemeteries is only natural.

“I think that if you know the type of people that you have originated from, it helps you in finding your way as you live your life day to day, and I’ve just been amazed by the dedication, and the fortitude of the people who went before me,” Whitsett-Hammond said.

For Rothman, preserving these cemeteries and fighting for equality in their treatment is crucial to preserving the memory of the people who have made profound contributions to the growth of the country.

“Recognizing where these burial grounds are and doing something to restore, preserve, and maintain them is a way of repudiating, rejecting, and overcoming the legacy of racism. It’s saying that these people should be honored as well.”