More than 50 people gathered Sunday afternoon to place flowers at Charlottesville’s historic Daughters of Zion Cemetery. The Decoration Day event is part of recent efforts to memorialize local African-American history.
A charitable society of African-American women, the Daughters of Zion founded the graveyard in 1873, 10 years after the opening of the segregated Oakwood Cemetery. In 2016, the Preservers of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery successfully applied for $80,000 from the city government to rescue the site from disrepair.
“This song is for the ancestors, for those who worked hard and sweated in fields, who knew little rest,” poet Shirley Soloman Parrish recited at Sunday’s event. “This song is for the ancestors, for those who baked the cakes and let us lick the bowls.”
After the ceremony, the group moved to the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society to see “Gone But Not Forgotten,” an exhibit on the people buried at the cemetery. The exhibit is the society’s first under its new executive director, Coy Barefoot.
“I think it’s important that our doors are open,” Barefoot said Sunday. “We’ve got jazz in the library, and the building is full of life and conversation. This fits with my goal, which is that we use history as a tool to create experiences that can build new relationships.”
One of the panels in the exhibit features Mary Nelson Lewis, who was a founding member of Ebenezer Baptist Church. This legacy motivates Lewis’ great-granddaughter, Bernadette Whitsett-Hammond, an organizer with the Preservers.
“These individuals contributed to the life of Charlottesville for many, many years and we want their story included in Charlottesville’s history,” Whitsett-Hammond said.
Two surveys of the cemetery using ground-penetrating radar have revealed approximately 270 unmarked graves at the site. These graves particularly motivate Preservers organizer Edwina St. Rose.
“I had an aunt, my mother’s sister, who is buried at the cemetery. Her marker is there,” St. Rose said. “I was happy that at least we have one marker. I have a grandfather buried there with no marker and maybe great-great-grandparents with no markers.”
St. Rose is also related to Burkley Bullock, a real estate magnate whose family has several gravestones at the Daughters of Zion Cemetery.
City funding paid for the radar surveys and other mapping by Rivanna Archaeological Services. The city also has started a fencing contract to better enclose the site.
“The dream is coming true,” said Whitsett-Hammond. “And it will be an ongoing one, because we are always going to have to be concerned about the restoration and preservation of the cemetery.”
Other recent additions to the graveyard include a historic marker and a monument to the unnamed burials at the site. A community group, BeCville, paid approximately $3,200 to erect the Memorial to the Unknown.
Virginia’s General Assembly passed a bill this year to extend state funding to maintain the Daughters of Zion Cemetery.
“History isn’t the past. History is the story we tell about the past, and it depends on who gets to tell the story,” Barefoot said. “That will determine the history we leave for those who come after us. So, if you do this right, it has to be inclusive.”
St. Rose emphasized the importance of telling Charlottesville’s whole story.
“There are a lot of connections between both African-Americans and Caucasians [in the history of the cemetery],” St. Rose said. “It’s a shared history.”
The “Gone But Not Forgotten” exhibit will run through the summer at the historical society building at 200 Second St. NE. It is free for the public to view during normal business hours.
Jazz group Cool Lane performs for Julia Reaves Green, Robert K. King, and Cauline Yates at the "Gone But Not Forgotten" reception.