Grave concern: Local group preserves historic black cemetery

There are 218 known individuals buried at the Daughters of Zion Cemetery, founded in 1873, though hundreds more are likely interred there as well. Photo by Natalie Jacobsen There are 218 known individuals buried at the Daughters of Zion Cemetery, founded in 1873, though hundreds more are likely interred there as well. Photo by Natalie Jacobsen

A single pink rose lies at a diagonal across the quartz headstone that has become two-toned with age in the last 125 years. The rose covers part of the inscription on Carrie Brown’s headstone, which is different from others from that time period. The Buckner family’s clustering of graves, which lies to the west of Brown’s—all have the same phrase: “Gone but not forgotten.” Brown’s last message to the world, written in a delicate cursive font, reads, “Left my home but not my heart.”

That home is the Daughters of Zion Cemetery, officially founded in 1873 by the “charitable association of colored women in Charlottesville,” according to the cemetery deed. When the society founded the cemetery, there was only one burial option for African-Americans in Charlottesville—the “colored” section of Oakwood Cemetery, the strictly segregated graveyard on Oak Street adjacent to the two-acre Zion property. Today, it is one of three public cemeteries owned by the city of Charlottesville (the city bought the title to the land in 1970) and it is one of 34 historic African-American cemeteries, both public and private, in the county. But just a few years ago, the hallowed ground was trashed, vandalized, had several broken, discolored and displaced grave markers, and was marred with overgrown vegetation and erosion.

In 2015, Charlottesville’s Dialogue on Race sponsored a public forum 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. The group submitted its preservation plan to City Council and received $80,000 to put its proposal into action.

The official preservation team, working to detect, document and preserve the graves of those buried in the cemetery, includes Edwina St. Rose and Bernadette Whitsett-Hammond.

Bernadette Whitsett-Hammond and Edwina St. Rose began preservation efforts at the Daughters of Zion Cemetery, the historic African-American cemetery off Oak Street, two years ago. Photo by Natalie Jacobsen
Bernadette Whitsett-Hammond and Edwina St. Rose began preservation efforts at the Daughters of Zion Cemetery, the historic African-American cemetery off Oak Street, two years ago. Photo by Natalie Jacobsen

St. Rose is a descendant of Burkley Bullock, who was enslaved with his family in Earlysville by merchant and banker Colonel John Jones. Bullock had learned to read from former Monticello slave Peter Fossett, and after being emancipated in 1865 he purchased a 35-acre tract of land between the properties of Hugh Carr and Jesse Scott Sammons in the Hydraulic Mills area. Bullock founded the Piedmont Industrial Land and Improvement Company, which helped African-Americans own homes by providing credit to prospective homeowners. He also owned a restaurant near Union Railroad Station, which served as a communal space for the African-American community, and was a founding member of Union Ridge Baptist Church, which still stands on Hydraulic Road.

While St. Rose considers herself lucky to have learned about the slave history of her ancestor because her family continued to reside in the same city as he did, she doesn’t think many descendants of the enslaved know of this history.

For this reason, she believes that preserving these cemeteries is one of the few remaining measures to honor the dead. “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.”

To Whitsett-Hammond, who has spent every year since her childhood coming to the ruined Daughter of Zion cemetery on Memorial Day and paying 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,” says Whitsett-Hammond.

Discovering ties to the past

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 surrounded by student dorms at the University of Virginia looks like any other dense thicket of land on Grounds. 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, the plot of land is unrecognizable for what it actually is—a cemetery of the enslaved.

The cemetery is surrounded by the Stadium Road Residence Area, where thousands of students reside, but hardly any of them realize they’re living next to a gravesite, let alone a slave cemetery, says 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—the signage was in an odd spot near a staircase and was almost camouflaged by the wall that it was on. With construction underway, the previously incorrectly placed sign is now completely covered, making the cemetery practically unidentifiable.

This area was originally part of the Piedmont plantation that belonged to the Maury family, and among all the people the family enslaved, more than 70 are buried in this plot, which is now called Maury Cemetery.

Although the University of Virginia has made an effort to preserve the ground that was first discovered in the 1980s, the plot looks much different than it did in the period of enslavement. Over the years, trees have been cut down and headstones have been removed or defaced, says Rainville.

The problems with identifying slave cemeteries isn’t unusual in the United States. If you take the example of a single state like Virginia, Rainville estimates that 60 percent or more slave cemeteries are unidentified, damaged, built over and, even when preserved, very few people know about them.

The reasons for this range from vandalism, to natural deterioration, the lack of local history documentation and not having proper historical records of the enslaved.

“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.” Edwina St. Rose

It was much more difficult for African-Americans to preserve their legacies than it was for white Americans. “White communities have tended to have greater resources at their disposal to preserve and maintain their cemeteries,” says Adam Rothman, a history professor at Georgetown University.

Jesse Scott Sammons, born a free black man in 1853, was a descendant of Monticello slave Mary Hemings, sister of Sally. Sammons attended what is now Charlottesville’s Jefferson School and went on to become principal of the first high school for African-American students in Albemarle County. Sammons ran for a position in the Virginia General Assembly in 1880 and held a state-level office in the Baptist church. The respected community leader and educator died in 1901 and was buried on land he owned near the south fork of Ivy Creek. In 2012, it was discovered that Sammons’ gravesite, as well as that of three others, including his daughter’s husband, George Ferguson, the first African-American doctor to have a practice in Albemarle County, lay in the path of the controversial proposed Western Bypass. The 6.2-mile road, plans for which were first suggested in 1979 and resurrected in 2011, would skirt the commercial corridor on U.S. 29.

The Virginia Department of Transportation proposed moving the graves because it was determined the plot “lacked historical significance” either with “significant historical events or association with a person of great importance,” but Sammons’ descendants asked the state to reconsider. In 2014 the project was put on hold after a federal agency would not grant environmental clearance, and the headstones remain untouched, just outside city limits.

In February, the state of 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. This preferential treatment to preserving and honoring white heritage is another manifestation of racial inequality in the United States, Rothman says.

Rainville, who has created a database of African-American cemeteries in Amherst and Albemarle counties, believes this inconsistency is a problem. On the eve of the Civil War, the population of African-Americans and white Americans in Virginia (and in many other states) was almost equally proportionate. “For every white burial, there is a black burial somewhere,” she says. “But today, there are many more preserved white cemeteries than there are black cemeteries, especially slave cemeteries.”

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.”

Lynn Rainville, an anthropological archaeologist who specializes in the study of African-American burial grounds, created an online database of historic black cemeteries in Amherst and Albemarle counties. She lists 34 cemeteries in Albemarle, with eight public hallowed grounds shown above.
Lynn Rainville, an anthropological archaeologist who specializes in the study of African-American burial grounds, created an online database of historic black cemeteries in Amherst and Albemarle counties. She lists 34 cemeteries in Albemarle, with eight public hallowed grounds shown above.

Preservation efforts

On Sunday, May 28, “Decoration Day,” St. Rose and Whitsett-Hammond shared with a crowd at CitySpace the history of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery and a recap of improvements that have been made there in the last year, followed by a ceremony at the cemetery. Among one of the biggest changes is the use of ground-penetrating radar to determine if there are more people buried there than the 218 currently recorded.

Steve Thompson, principal investigator with the Rivanna Archaeological Services, began working with St. Rose and Whitsett-Hammond last fall, when he helped bring in local company Naeva Geophysics to do the radar detection work, first on a 50-by-125-foot patch of land on the hillside and later on an area four times that size. Thompson overlaid a grid that divided the cemetery into average burial size plots on top of the radar results from 4.5 feet below ground. The concentration of mass shows a pattern that lines up with the grid: Currently headstones mark only eight graves out of a possible 250 to 300 in that one area of the cemetery. According to Thompson’s map, the graveyard has the capacity for 2,000 graves.

“The cemetery is almost certainly far fuller than we’d be led to believe by the stones that are visible on the surface,” he said.

Although the total number of burials will never be known, the radar will be used again this summer along the western edge of the cemetery where the preservers hope to erect a fence. The radar will determine where the exact edge of the cemetery lies, and will be used to stake fence posts so no existing plots are disturbed. Going forward, when the group applies for money from the state as part of the new House bill, it could receive more funds based on the higher number of people projected to be buried there.

“The Daughters of Zion Cemetery represents an important aspect of Charlottesville’s history,” Thompson says. “Preserving the landscape and making sure what it is is understood by residents of the city is important.”

Lola Flash, a photographer and teacher, flew in from New York for the Decoration Day ceremony. Flash’s great-grandparents lived on Sixth Street Northwest, and her mother, Jean James Green Henderson, visited them every summer. Over the years, Flash had visited the Daughters of Zion Cemetery with her mother and heard stories of her mom’s visits to Charlottesville. When her mother decided to write down their family’s legacy in a book titled Our Charlottesville Roots, Flash helped transcribe her mother’s words (Henderson was blind at the time and spoke into a tape recorder). Flash learned more about the Bullock family legacy and how her mom’s grandfather, Charles Bullock, started a lot of the YMCAs when they were still called the “YMCA for Colored Men.” Burkley Bullock is a shared ancestor with St. Rose.

When Flash returned to the cemetery last month, this time with her camera and 91- year-old Teresa Jackson, one of her mother’s childhood friends from her Charlottesville visits, she discovered something new—the gravestones of her Bullock ancestors.

Flash knelt down beside one of the gravestones, and extended her left arm out in front of her. At first she smiled at the camera but then changed her expression to a more somber one. She captured a moment of quiet reflection on a day when those championing the preservation of the cemetery have come together to lay roses on every grave marker.

Says Flash, “A lot of African-American families don’t want to talk about the history because it’s so sad and because of a lot of the language that was used around it, but my mom has a quote—I hope I don’t mess it up. She says ‘finding her Charlottesville roots was like walking through a rose garden, thorns and all, but at the end of it there’s a bouquet.’”

A bouquet that on this day has been divided into single pink, white and yellow roses, each a tribute to the known 218 men and women who are buried at the Daughters of Zion Cemetery, and whose legacy and impact on Charlottesville live on, as well as that of the unknown, whose quiet influence is not forgotten.—Text by Ifath Sayed and Jessica Luck

A version of this story originally appeared on Sojourners’ website,

The Tonsler family plot. Photo by Natalie Jacobsen
The Tonsler family plot. Photo by Natalie Jacobsen

Virtual reality

Former City Councilor Dede Smith worked with Edwina St. Rose and Bernadette Whitsett-Hammond to create an audio walking tour of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery through an app called izi.TRAVEL. The app uses GPS to determine your location, and nearby audio tours automatically pop up. For the cemetery tour, start at cemetery’s sign on Oak Street, where you’ll then be guided to one of 14 stops to learn more about some of the men and women who made huge impacts on our city.

At Decoration Day, Smith told the audience that the Goochland Historical Society recently contacted her after learning about the Daughters of Zion tour, and she’ll be working with them to create a driving African-American historic tour.

Benjamin Tonsler

Tonsler was a well-known civic leader who fought for the education of African-American children. He was born April 2, 1854, though it’s not known whether he was born to an enslaved or free family. His descendants were believed to have been employed by a University of Virginia professor, who may have taught Tonsler to read and write.

Tonsler graduated from the Hampton Institute and returned to Charlottesville as a teacher at the Jefferson Graded School, the only school for African-American students in the city at the time. After a few years, Tonsler became principal of the school, a role which he held for almost 30 years. At the time it was illegal for African-American students to study past the eighth grade, and Tonsler held classes for older students in secret after the school day was over.

Today, Tonsler Park on Cherry Avenue is named in his honor. His gravestone at Daughters of Zion reads “Erected by the Alumni of the Jefferson Graded School and Friends.” He’s buried alongside his wife, Fannie Gildersleeve Tonsler, and other relatives of the Tonsler, Heiskell and Buckner families.

Reverend M.T. Lewis

Lewis came to Charlottesville in 1873 to serve as pastor of the Delevan Baptist Church, which was later renamed First Baptist Church. Delevan Baptist was founded in 1863 as the first independent black church in Charlottesville after African-Americans broke away from the segregated First Baptist Church. The parishioners originally worshiped at the Delevan Hotel on West Main Street, which was torn down and replaced by the First Baptist Church building. Lewis died at the age of 40 before he could deliver a sermon in the new building.

Lewis’ burial site at the Daughters of Zion Cemetery is surrounded by Victorian piping decoration (look for the image of the Masonic emblem on the back of his tombstone). His wife, Mary Lewis Kelser, and her second husband, George Kelser, both teachers in the community, were laid to rest next to him.

The Goodloe family

The Goodloe family plot of 15 graves resides in a fenced area in the northern section of the cemetery bordering Dice Street. The Goodloes were instrumental in helping to build and bury the African-American community at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century. Charles Goodloe and his sons built many of the African-American homes and businesses in the area for four decades; Goodloe also served on the board of directors for the Piedmont Industrial and Land Improvement Company, which provided credit to African-American homebuyers. Other Goodloe family members worked as embalmers and undertakers.

Goodloe’s daughter, Willie, married Jackson P. Burley, a well-respected educator in the city and for whom Burley High School (now middle school) was named when it was built in 1951. In 1935, after the Daughters of Zion Society disbanded, Courtney Goodloe bought Zion Hall on Fourth Street Northwest in the Vinegar Hill neighborhood to keep the legacy alive (the site was razed in 1964 and it’s now the location of the Residence Inn by Marriott Charlottesville Downtown). One of the organizations housed there over the years was the Janie Porter Barrett Day Nursery, now named the Barrett Early Learning Center and located up the road on Ridge Street.

Segregation in death

Like Edwina St. Rose and Bernadette Whitsett-Hammond, others have begun participating in the cemetery preservation effort. Students at Georgetown University started the Tombstone Restoration Initiative to restore the graves of the 272 slaves that were sold by the Jesuit order connected to the university when it was suffering from debt in the 1830s.

Apart from honoring the dead, slave cemeteries are also significant because they were so meaningful to the enslaved. “[A funeral] was a place for shared grief and collective expression of their own values,” says Adam Rothman, 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.

Slaves 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 sold could reunite, the enslaved would also use funerals to find marriage partners or as a time to meet their wives and children, says Lynn Rainville, African-American cemetery historian.

In the United States, not many slave cemeteries are recognizable; most of them have no markers to identify the dead. They’re in ruins, trashed, vandalized and don’t even look like cemeteries.

Monticello’s Park Cemetery is an anomaly. The plantation was home to nearly 400 slaves in Thomas Jefferson’s lifetime, some of whom are buried in this cemetery.

Right beside the David M. Rubenstein Visitor’s Center parking lot at Monticello, a signboard displays the significance of the bare plot of fenced land. Another board has a list of the names of the enslaved people who died at Monticello. Together, these give context to the lives of those buried here.

Inside the fenced plot, two stones of different sizes lie in close proximity to each other. According to Niya Bates, public historian of slavery and African American life at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, these stones are the headstones and footstones of the person buried, and the small distance between the stones signifies that this is the grave of a child.

When graves were first discovered here as part of archaeological fieldwork in 2001, temporary signage was put up and the area was fenced so it could remain undisturbed. However, Rainville doubts that all the graves are inside the fenced area. According to her, the fact that many of these graves were unmarked indicates that unidentified graves may have been overlooked and may have been covered by what is now the parking lot.

Apart from difficulty in identifying graves, locations of slave cemeteries are also worth notice. The Jefferson family graveyard is higher up the hill, closer to the main house, while the slave cemetery is at the bottom, which is similar to the location of burial grounds of the enslaved on other plantations.

“Very few slave owners were willing to give slave communities a valuable piece of land to bury their dead,” says Rainville. The transfer of unsuitable land to the enslaved means slave cemeteries are often in the center of an old field, usually a rocky one, or one with a huge tree that made it difficult to plow, or a field that was undesirable for any other reason.

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