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Gov. Ralph Northam highlighted his support for preserving historic African-American cemeteries for the second time in four days.
Northam toured an exhibit on the Daughters of Zion Cemetery at the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society on Monday. Last week, he visited the Tucker Family Cemetery in Hampton.
“Just everything related to the Daughters of Zion cemetery has been like a whirlwind … because it had been neglected for so long,” said Bernadette Whitsett-Hammond, who is a member of the group preserving the cemetery. “[The attention] makes [the cemetery] appear much more of a priority in the story of Charlottesville.”
The Daughters of Zion, a charitable group of African-American women, established the cemetery in 1873 next to the segregated Oakwood Cemetery off Elliott Avenue. The last known burial there was in 1995.
As a child, Whitsett-Hammond would visit the Daughters of Zion Cemetery on Memorial Day to honor relatives buried there.
“I tell stories of cutting through thicket to get to our family plot. Over the years, family members passed who were connected to the Daughters of Zion Cemetery, and they didn’t have anyone to take care of their plots,” she said. “But our little spot was still taken care of.”
In 2016, Whitsett-Hammond and other members of the Preservers of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery secured $80,000 from the city to restore the site. The cemetery was founded during a time when perpetual care funds for graveyard upkeep were not common.
The preservers are applying for state funding, as well. This year, the General Assembly passed five bills that offer funding to historic African-American cemeteries.
“It is so important — particularly in light of what happened here last August — to resurrect the stories of people who are largely unknown, because it’s part of our history and part of that healing that has to go on,” said Del. David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville, who ensured that the Daughters of Zion Cemetery was listed in the bills.
In August 2017, white supremacist groups rallied in downtown Charlottesville ostensibly to support preserving the Confederate monuments in Court Square and Market Street parks. One rally participant has been charged with driving his car into a group of counter-protesters, killing activist Heather Heyer.
Despite the momentum to remove the statues after Heyer’s death, the power to remove or alter the statues lies largely at the state level and in the courts. A bill that would allow localities to decide the fate of their monuments died in the General Assembly this year. A lawsuit filed against the city by supporters of the monuments is ongoing.
“There needs to be legislation in Richmond to let the localities deal with these statues and monuments,” Northam said. “White supremacists marched into a beautiful city, a wonderful university, spewing hatred and bigotry, and we need to make sure that doesn’t continue to happen. To have access to the cemeteries — to have access to history — is very important.”
Edwina St. Rose, one of the preservers, has been hearing about the impact of the historical society’s exhibit all summer. The exhibit even prompted one person to send St. Rose the names of two individuals buried in unmarked graves in the cemetery.
“If they’re buried before 1912, there’s not going to be a death certificate. If we can’t find an obituary, the only way we would know [the names] is if a family member comes forward,” St. Rose said.
The exhibit, which includes photographs and newspaper clippings about people buried at Daughters of Zion, will be on display at the historical society until late September.