Deep memories: Hundreds of unmarked graves found in historic Black cemetery

Charlottesville's Daughters of Zion Cemetery. Photo: Natalie Jacobsen Charlottesville’s Daughters of Zion Cemetery. Photo: Natalie Jacobsen


Around the gentle, grassy slope, under the shade of old trees, stone markers are scattered here and there. Some are arranged in neat rows, some stand alone. A few are shining, new, and sturdy. Many are little more than half-buried shards of stone poking out of the soil. 

All told, there are around 140 visible grave markers here, in the historic Daughters of Zion Cemetery, where many of 19th- and 20th-century Charlottesville’s most important Black leaders are buried. 

This summer, a high-tech geological radar survey has revealed more of the history below the surface. The radar estimates that the cemetery holds 641 graves.

The 2015 sign marking the cemetery’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places says the land “may contain as many as 300 graves.” Bernadette Whitsett-Hammond and Edwina St. Rose, two descendants of people buried in the cemetery, have been working to uncover the place’s history since 2016, and have so far collected the names of 312 people buried there.

“We believed that there were more,” says Whitsett-Hammond. “We imagined the cemetery was full, but we didn’t know for sure until we had the ground-penetrating radar.”

“Unmarked graves are very common,” says Mark Howard, a senior geologist at the local firm NAEVA Geophysics, who led the team that conducted the new radar survey. “…But we were also surprised by the number of graves at Daughters of Zion.”

Left: A 2010 sketch from the National Register of Historic Places shows the scattered markers visible above the ground at Daughters of Zion Cemetery. Right: 2020 electromagnetic imaging reveals all the cemetery’s burials. Each yellow dash is a grave site. Image courtesy City of Charlottesville.

The cemetery was established in 1873 by the Daughters of Zion, a charitable organization comprised of local Black women. The group staked out the land because the larger Oakwood Cemetery, across the street, was segregated. 

“What they had was a colored section,” says St. Rose. “And the Daughters of Zion didn’t want to be relegated to a colored section.” 

A walk through the cemetery is a tour of Black Charlottesville’s post-bellum history. “There’s Dr. Whittaker, who had a hospital named after him in Newport News,” says St. Rose. “The Coles family, they were builders,” she says, gesturing to another plot. Under one large tree, surrounded by family, is Benjamin Tonsler, the long-time principal of the Jefferson School and namesake of Tonsler Park. Elsewhere lies Burkley Bullock, St. Rose’s ancestor, who owned a restaurant and founded the Piedmont Industrial Land and Improvement Company, which helped Black Charlottesville residents buy homes. 

The Daughters of Zion society disbanded in 1933, and burials in the cemetery declined in frequency. In the 1970s, the city declared the plot officially abandoned. Later, a storm drain was tunneled through, which may have further disrupted the grave sites.

The descendants of those buried in Daughters of Zion never forgot the place, though. Like St. Rose, Whitsett-Hammond has family buried in the cemetery. As a child, she made a yearly pilgrimage to the site where her ancestors rest.

Grave markers have disappeared over the years—they’ve sunk into the earth or been pilfered by vandals. Some of the graves were likely never marked.

“When we started working here in 2016, you could barely read any of these markers, they were turned over,” says St. Rose. 

“We have one or two that had sank down into the ground, and because of erosion we were able to find them,” Whitsett-Hammond says.

At the behest of the city’s Parks & Recreation Department, Howard’s team used a state-of-the-art radar system to map out the unmarked plots.

“The radar transmits an electromagnetic pulse into the ground, and when that energy encounters materials with different electric properties, some of that signal is reflected back to the surface,” he says. “We measure the time very carefully between when the pulse was transmitted and when it’s received back. That’s how you determine the depth of an object.”

The pulses are accurate down to a centimeter, and though they don’t tell the geologists what the object is, they are extremely good at pinpointing where objects are.

“If there were only a couple of graves scattered about, they might be very difficult to recognize. So what we’re really looking for is patterns,” Howard says. In this case, the subterranean objects were all roughly grave-sized, and laid out in neat rows. 

“In the Judeo-Christian tradition, graves are typically oriented east-west,” he says. “Seeing those rows makes it clear that we are imaging graves.”

NAEVA has also conducted a GPR analysis at Pen Park, where the geologists found more unmarked graves, likely belonging to the enslaved people held by the Gilmer and Craven families. The unmarked Pen Park graves lie just outside the walls of the well-marked family cemeteries.

During our stroll through Daughters of Zion, Whitsett-Hammond stops periodically to pick up a stick and throw it out of the pathway, or to pull up a stone marker that’s toppled. Cicadas hum and a breeze blows through the shady space. “You can walk through and it’s very peaceful,” she says.

St. Rose and Whitsett-Hammond hope to discover the identities of more of the hundreds of unidentified people buried in the cemetery, and also learn as much biographical information as possible about the people who have already been identified.

In 2017, the preservation group erected a stone obelisk near the cemetery’s entrance. The inscription reads: “Memorial to the Unknown. Gone But Not Forgotten.”

“We’re always reaching out to the community,” says Whitsett-Hammond. “In case they may know of somebody who had heard of somebody who was buried here.”


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