Robert King walked thoughtfully across the grass, his leather loafers making little sound as he headed toward a place he knew well.“
Look at this, come over here,” said King, who has walked this path many times, first as a boy with his father, and most recently in his work with the Preservers of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery.
The leaves on the trees above rustled quietly, their movements shifting dappled sunlight from the golden hour across the fabric of King’s blue and white gingham shirt.
“I gotta show this to you,” he said, smiling wide and taking a knee in front of a small stone grave marker. “Here’s my great-grandma,” he said, placing his fingertips lovingly on the stone, “Ida Burton.”
Ida Bell Burton’s grave marker is just one of the many dozens that King has cleaned and maintained in the cemetery over the past few years, as the Preservers of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery continue their efforts to not only maintain the physical space of the cemetery, but to identify the estimated 300 people who are buried there, many of whom do not have grave markers.
The cemetery was founded in 1873, eight years after slavery was abolished. Established by the Daughters of Zion, a charitable society of African American women, it became the burial place for a number of prominent Black Charlottesville families.
Located on Oak Street near what is now downtown Charlottesville, Daughters of Zion Cemetery is adjacent to Oakwood Cemetery, which, for a long time, was whites-only, except for a very, very small segment, and was separated from Daughters of Zion by a stone wall.
The wall still exists, though it borders just Oakwood Cemetery now, and Oak Street is the major marker separating the two cemeteries. Due to the placement of the wall, some folks believe that Daughters of Zion graves were paved over to build Oak Street, King said.
Though Oakwood Cemetery is no longer segregated — his own parents, who were Black, are buried there — plenty of inequities still exist between the two spaces, and those who lay in rest in Daughters of Zion Cemetery deserve more respect than they’ve previously been given, he said. It’s why he cleans the stones.
King, who grew up in Charlottesville and lived in Atlanta for many years before moving back in 2010, has had a few different careers — he’s been a railroader laying track across the East Coast and into Middle America, a grocery store manager, and a wine and fine water merchant. But one constant was his plan for retirement: to figure out who was buried in that cemetery he visited with his father years ago.
But two of his high school classmates — Edwina St. Rose and Bernadette Whitsett-Hammond — beat him to it.
St. Rose and Whitsett-Hammond are part of the team that officially established the Preservers of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery group that in 2015 received $80,000 from Charlottesville City Council to begin efforts to improve and continuously care for the cemetery, which is now owned by the city.
Like King, both St. Rose and Whitsett-Hammond have ancestors interred in the cemetery. They and others pour hours of their time into finding the names, the stories, and the descendants of the people buried there. The Daughters of Zion likely kept records, but the preservers haven’t been able to locate them, St. Rose said. And so, they read through archives of historic Black newspapers like The Planet, Messenger and The Reflector. They look through funeral home records, genealogy websites, and photographs, and they ask local families to share their stories.
“They didn’t need me for that part of it,” said King, laughing as he thinks about the coincidence that these women he’s known for so long (he and St. Rose were in the same kindergarten class), shared his interest. “Nobody knew these stories until these ladies started investigating them. They just needed somebody to come in and help clean it up. Sign me up! I’ll do it!”
After retiring in 2015, King, who has not just the passion but the energy for the cleaning duty, joined the preservers’ effort and spent an entire summer cleaning the remaining grave markers. “It really was a mess,” he said. Armed with a spray bottle of D/2 Biological Solution (the very stuff used to clean the gleaming white marble stones at Arlington National Cemetery), a hose, and a variety of brushes, King began early in the morning, on the sunny side of the cemetery, and moved into the shade as the day went on and the temperatures rose.
The stones had been neglected for so long, King managed to clean just three or four in a full day’s work. Some “were black as black can be,” he said, pointing to a few white marble stones. “You see how beautiful that is? That one used to be black. That one right there? Black. But they’re beautiful,” he said, beaming as he described how marble is actually quite soft and easily damaged.
Other stones were covered with lichen so thick, he had to scrape and peel it off. Some stones had been knocked into the ground and were covered with dirt, cracked, or nicked by other, harder rocks. Some had been stained red at the base, the result of Virginia red clay dirt splattering upward when hit by rain. A number of stones were broken and some — but not all — were able to be repaired or replaced.
Now, King visits whenever St. Rose and Whitsett-Hammond call to let him know some of the stones are looking less than fresh. He sprays the stone down with water, then applies a generous layer of the D/2, brushes the stone gently if its constitution allows, and then gives another rinse with water — unless it’s due to rain, then he lets nature take care of it.
“Everyone has a story,” he said, looking around at the grave markers. There’s Annie Buckner, thought to be one of the first people buried in the cemetery, born on December 1, 1867 and died at age 5, on April 3, 1873. Annie never met her sister Hattie M. Buckner, born August 4, 1879, but the two sisters lay side by side at the precarious edge of the cemetery and not far from their parents, Anthony and Louisa Buckner. Hattie died July 25, 1881, just a few days shy of her second birthday.
“You wouldn’t believe the dirt that used to be on these, my gosh,” said King, pointing to a white marble stone not far from the Buckner girls. “This one was awful-looking, black. You could not see the names.” But now, you can, and King read one out loud: “Delia Johnston.” Delia was born June 15, 1795 and died November 23, 1895, aged 100 years, 5 months, and 8 days, the stone points out. King thought out loud of what was happening when Delia was born (the United States wasn’t even two decades old), and what Delia saw throughout her life. She was born into slavery (a Daily Progress clipping on the Daughters of Zion website says “she used to belong to the late Alexander Rives”). Delia got married (her husband, Phillip, who died long before her, is buried next to her). Perhaps most striking to King, she saw the Civil War start and end.
There are members of the Coles family, who owned and operated Charles E. Coles and Sons, a popular construction business in town. Some of those buildings, perhaps most notably, J.F. Bell Funeral Home in Starr Hill, built in 1917, still stand.
There are members of the Tonsler family, whose patriarch,Benjamin E. Tonsler, was born into slavery in 1854 and later became one of Charlottesville’s most influential educators. Tonsler, namesake of Tonsler Park, was a teacher at and eventually principal of the Jefferson Graded School, from the time it opened in 1895 until his death in March 1917. (The school provided instruction for Black students through eighth grade; there was no high school offered for Black students in segregated Charlottesville at the time.)
“Everybody’s got a story,” King repeated, and he credits St. Rose, Whitsett-Hammond, local historian Jane Smith, and others with finding, collecting, and sharing those stories with current residents of the city and with the descendants of those buried here.
King said his family never told him his great-grandmother’s story. He had to learn about Ida Bell Burton on his own.
King didn’t know Ida, but he knew his grandfather, Ida’s first son, born in 1897.
According to the records, Ida was born in 1893, but King’s sure that’s not true — there’s no way she had a son at age 3 or 4. It’s more likely that she was born in 1883 (someone may have transposed the 8 as a 9 at some point) and had King’s grandfather when she was about 13.
“I think she was born in 1883, had a baby early, [at] 13 years old, and he was white,” said King, pointing to the curly white hair on his head, grinning. His grandfather’s hair was just like that, he said. “The story is that she didn’t want this white baby, because it just told everybody she’d had sex with somebody,” with a white man. “That’s the story. A part of it. I’m not sure how he grew up, but he did. That’s why I’m here.”
King nodded to Ida’s grave. “I’m glad.”
Ida’s husband, Monroe Burton (so, King’s step-great-grandfather) is buried on one side of her, though his grave is unmarked. King has a couple photos of Ida, who was a house maid for the University of Virginia president, and they’re now visible on the Preservers of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery website. One shows Ida as a young-ish woman, dressed up for a portrait. The other shows Ida and Monroe outside their home on Twelfth Street SW, in a neighborhood that was known at the time as Gospel Hill but is now the site of UVA Hospital.
The stone itself probably tells yet another part of the family story, King added. It’s a small stone, no bigger than a piece of Xerox paper, and dark, akin to the stone tiles that make up the local courthouse steps, King pointed out. It’s unique among others in the cemetery, too, in that Ida’s name is not professionally engraved on its surface. Instead, her name appears to be drilled by hand, each letter made of pencil eraser-sized dots bored into the stone.
It’s perhaps the most humble marker in the cemetery, but it’s a marker nonetheless, said King. Many markers are missing, he pointed out, many folks could not afford stones. Some of the unmarked graves are visible by rectangular outlines where the earth has sunk in on wooden boxes used to bury the dead, others are visible by the brown divots all over the land. Both stand out most clearly when the grass is freshly mowed.
Last year, in summer 2020, a geological radar survey showed that there are more than 300 graves in the cemetery. Only about 140 of them are marked.
“So many folks can’t visit their ancestors,” he said, either because they don’t know where they are in the cemetery, or they’re not there.
While King thinks often of people in the cemetery, even those whose names he does not know, he also thinks about those who are not here, for many reasons. At the very least, so many Black families of this era could not afford a cemetery burial. So many Black folks disappeared. So many people today cannot trace their heritage back, because documents were not kept, were destroyed, were incorrect. King is grateful that he can.
St. Rose and Whitsett-Hammond were close by as King knelt by his great-grandmother’s grave, and he called them over to bring up the photos of Ida for a Charlottesville Tomorrow reporter to see while in her presence. As Whitsett-Hammond showed the photos, King remarked on how peaceful the cemetery felt in that moment.
Whitsett-Hammond agreed and said that it is completely different from how she experienced it as a girl. Her family called it “Society Cemetery” (it’s also known colloquially as Oakwood II, Samaritan, and a couple other names), and “it was overgrown. You had to bring clippers and all kinds of things, sickles, to make our way over here. As people died and moved away, the graves were left untended. And the city had not [yet] taken ownership of it, so it was just left the way it was. This is such a tremendous improvement over how it had been.
In an effort to share this knowledge with the community, the Preservers of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery group has a robust website that includes the names of the folks they know for certain are buried in the cemetery, along with any additional information they have — photos of grave markers, photos of the people, newspaper clippings or historical research that mentions them, and more. They’ve also created a virtual tour that people can download to their smartphones and tablets and listen to as they walk the cemetery, or listen to from home.
“As we say, it is a sacred space, and we always want it to remain that way, a sacred space,” Whitsett-Hammond continued, asking for folks to “respect it.”
King nodded, his eyes wide, at Whitsett-Hammond’s request that the community respect the cemetery as a sacred space. Some disrespectful things go on in here, like people spending the night on Halloween, or putting green paint on some of the stones, or, walking their pets through despite the “no dog” signs, and — King indicated by lifting one leg — letting those pets urinate in the cemetery.
Minutes later, someone walked right past one of those signs and into the cemetery, fully engaged in a phone conversation, their dog trailing on a leash behind them. They made it almost all the way to the other side of the small cemetery before the dog paused at a bush and, sure enough, lifted its leg.
King pointed out where animals, likely dogs, had recently urinated on some of the stones, indicated by bright streaks where the acidic urine had chewed through the lichen and the dirt and probably a layer of the stone itself.
Another layer of that respect, said St. Rose, is making sure that development doesn’t encroach on the cemetery. She spends a lot of time at the cemetery, trying to connect what she and others have learned through their research by what they can glean on-site.
“We want this cemetery always included in the story of Charlottesville,” Whitsett-Hammond said. “When you tell it, also refer to the Daughters of Zion Cemetery, because the people who are interred here contributed to the establishment, the growth of the city. The movers and shakers,” she said, laughing. Another part of that story is the work the preservers are doing right now. Charlottesville’s got plenty of not so good stories, Whitsett-Hammond said, but this one, “this is a good one.”
As St. Rose and Whitsett-Hammond, aided by Dede Smith and a wireless speaker, gave a tour of the cemetery to some UVA students, King delightedly shared some of his great-grandmother’s story for a second time that day, reminding them that not everyone could afford a stone, so there are more people buried in here than there are stones.
While standing off to the side, he surveyed the work he, St. Rose, Whitsett-Hammond, and other preservers have done. “It looks good, doesn’t it?” he asked. It did.
Then the squirrels leaping around the markers with nuts in their mouths caught King’s attention. He said that when was out here cleaning stones last month, the squirrels were using their teeth to cut the nuts from the trees, letting them fall to the ground with a thud — oftentimes just barely missing King’s head. That afternoon, they ran around in the golden light, gathering the fallen nuts to bury as sustenance for the upcoming winter. “Did you know that’s how they do it?,” he asked, looking back out at the stones and the divots, buried sustenance in their own way.
“We, as humans, miss a whole lot.”