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Hidden History

Hidden History: African American Cemeteries in Central Virginia

Lynn Rainville
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 216
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt6wrgrv
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  • Book Info
    Hidden History
    Book Description:

    InHidden History,Lynn Rainville travels through the forgotten African American cemeteries of central Virginia to recover information crucial to the stories of the black families who lived and worked there for over two hundred years. The subjects of Rainville's research are not statesmen or plantation elites; they are hidden residents, people who are typically underrepresented in historical research but whose stories are essential for a complete understanding of our national past.

    Rainville studied above-ground funerary remains in over 150 historic African American cemeteries to provide an overview of mortuary and funerary practices from the late eighteenth century to the end of the twentieth. Combining historical, anthropological, and archaeological perspectives, she analyzes documents-such as wills, obituaries, and letters-as well as gravestones and graveside offerings. Rainville's findings shed light on family genealogies, the rise and fall of segregation, and attitudes toward religion and death. As many of these cemeteries are either endangered or already destroyed, the book includes a discussion on the challenges of preservation and how the reader may visit, and help preserve, these valuable cultural assets.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3535-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  6. 1 FINDING ZION
    (pp. 1-11)

    On a crisp fall Saturday in 2008, following a lead in attempting to locate a “Burton Family Cemetery,” I traveled down a rural Virginia lane to an African American church cemetery. When I arrived, I found the churchyard deserted, with only silent stone sentinels to note my approach.

    The gravestones mark each life, often clustered into families, illustrating untold histories. I document each stone, one person at a time. Later, I will upload the photos and inscriptions to a website where I have collected six thousand other memorials from historic African American cemeteries in central Virginia.

    I have visited over...

  7. 2 LOCATING AND RECORDING THE DEAD
    (pp. 12-22)

    Before recording gravestones, you have to know the location of the cemetery. Unfortunately, there is no master database for American cemeteries. There are dozens of websites that purport to list all local cemeteries by county or township, but these sites rarely include historic nineteenth-century burial grounds. The methods for locating a cemetery vary with its age. For example, slave cemeteries are often located on former plantation land, while free black cemeteries are often in the backyards of old homes. The first half of this chapter describes how to locate these historic cemeteries. Although some techniques are useful for locating any...

  8. 3 THE ACCIDENTAL MUSEUM: Gravestone Designs
    (pp. 23-50)

    Gravestones can be read like books; each stone contains the abbreviated story of a life. The information that can be gleaned from gravestones includes birth and death dates, names, gender, age at death, and on occasion, hints regarding the occupation or social class of the deceased. But if we “read” more broadly and study the design and shape of the stone, more can be learned. Here I will explore five additional levels of interpretation: the material of the stone and its shape, the motif, the inscription, and the context of the stone within the cemetery.

    Discussing only black motifs and...

  9. 4 SLAVE CEMETERIES AND MORTUARY RITUALS
    (pp. 51-65)

    Enslavers restricted and denied the human rights of African Americans. However, many masters allowed enslaved people to decide how, and sometimes where, to bury their dead.¹ But African Americans had limited control over the timing of funerals and the graveside commemoration of the dead. This chapter traces the rituals of death and dying within enslaved communities—including funerals, mourning practices, and grieving—and discusses the common features within their cemeteries.

    First I review the mortuary rituals celebrated by enslaved individuals, from the death to the wake, burial, and funeral, and from the mourning process to the selection of a memorial...

  10. 5 THE NETWORK OF DEATH: Funerals, Churches, and Burial Societies
    (pp. 66-75)

    The gravestone is an invaluable source of information, but it is only one of a complex series of mortuary rituals that can reveal much about the culture of the dead. These include rituals of preburial such as wakes and funerals, the participation of funeral homes and churches, and the contributions of burial societies that occasionally helped fund the proceedings. For the past four hundred years, African American families have syncretized belief systems that combine West African, Christian, and evolving American traditions. In funerary rituals, these efforts have created new customs that persist alongside practices found throughout America.

    To understand the...

  11. 6 LOST COMMUNITIES OF THE DEAD
    (pp. 76-97)

    Mid-twentieth-century trends toward increased housing development and consequent rising land prices and tax rates forced many African American families to sell their land and attendant gravesites. Difficult economic times also forced families to migrate to northern cities to seek employment. In their absence, many of their historic house sites and cemeteries were destroyed. In other cases, carved fieldstones that once marked graves were removed and stacked under nearby trees to clear the land for cultivation or for animal husbandry. African American family history is lost when the grave sites and homesteads of earlier generations are destroyed.

    The following five vignettes...

  12. 7 GRAVESTONE GENEALOGIES
    (pp. 98-113)

    A 2006 listing on an Albemarle County online real estate site read, “Don’t miss this single family house for sale by agent. This great home is equipped with five bedrooms and five baths. Come and see for yourself.”¹ The photograph accompanying the advertisement showed a four-thousand-square-foot redbrick house, complete with a wraparound veranda and white rocking chairs, awaiting occupants holding mint juleps. Nowhere in the listing did it mention another feature of this property: twenty-six permanent residents, lying at rest in the African American cemetery in the backyard. A hundred years ago this was the family homestead of Silas Jackson,...

  13. 8 CONNECTING COMMUNITIES THROUGH THEIR BURIAL GROUNDS
    (pp. 114-131)

    For southern African Americans, the search for their ancestors often leads to an antebellum plantation. But tracing ancestral lines from postbellum families to enslaved, antebellum ones is often circuitous. After emancipation, some African Americans took surnames for the first time. Others, celebrating their newfound freedom, chose new names, which sometimes separates them in the historical record from siblings who did not.¹ Both factors complicate genealogical research. Moreover, many African American communities were dispersed during the depressions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Today, very little is left of these historic black neighborhoods. But the plantation cemeteries remain. In...

  14. 9 COMMEMORATING AND PRESERVING HISTORIC BLACK CEMETERIES
    (pp. 132-148)

    Sometimes the presence of an African American cemetery is obvious—when an area is enclosed with barbed wire or contains visible markers or is adjacent to a church, for example. But often, what remains is so subtle that it is likely to be missed by the casual observer. Left unmarked, these cemeteries are more often subject to inadvertent or intentional destruction. There is no single correct way to commemorate a cemetery, but any efforts to do so should focus on respecting the individuals buried at the site.

    Sometimes even narrowing down the possible location of a cemetery is not enough...

  15. 10 CEMETERIES AS CLASSROOMS: Teaching Social History with Gravestones
    (pp. 149-162)

    When I began my research into historic African American cemeteries, I envisioned local residents lingering over old tombstones, reading epitaphs and poignant inscriptions aloud. While some of this vision has come to pass, it became clear that some segments of the interested audience would not be visiting the cemeteries in person. These included older members of the community who were not able to travel easily, busy families, nonlocal descendants, and former community members who were interested in learning about these historic sites from a distance. With contemporary technologies, such as online databases and digital photographs, I was able to post...

  16. Appendix: Gravestone Recording Forms
    (pp. 163-166)
  17. Notes
    (pp. 167-178)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 179-186)
  19. Index
    (pp. 187-194)