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Tuesday, March 28, 2023

It’s been just over a year since Tamica Jean-Charles reported on a little-known fact about Pen Park in Charlottesville: A few hundred yards away from the picnic shelters lie the final resting places of people who were enslaved.

The city’s Historic Resources Committee and the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society have been on a quest to uncover the names of laborers enslaved at the Pen Park plantation, and their descendants. The initial data they’ve collected is spread out across physical and scanned documents, in spreadsheets, slideshows and newspaper clippings. Which makes it hard for people to access the records that might lead them to their ancestors. 

Now, the researchers are organizing the data in a way that will make it easier to use. They are building a database that will be publicly accessible this summer, to allow more people to access their research and potentially find more descendant links.

Here’s what you need to know about the project.

A woman looks ahead as she stands in front of a cobblestone wall.
Credit: Tamica Jean-Charles/Charlottesville Tomorrow

Researchers are still trying to identify the enslaved people buried in unmarked Pen Park graves

When we ran our first story about the enslaved people who were buried in the popular public park, we got a lot of messages from the community. For many, it was shocking to know that they played and picnicked atop a site of such great injustice, on the unmarked graves of the ancestors of their neighbors.

For Zelda Hines and Michelle Waller-Stevens, among the first round of possible descendants discovered by the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society and the city of Charlottesville, understanding their family history was a profound experience.

“We can’t move on and not know what’s in our past,” Hines said on the In My Humble Opinion talk show. “In order for us to move on with our feelings and our understandings, we have to look deep and thank God we’re still not in that position.”

Four people sit in a studio with radio broadcast equipment behind them.
Credit: Credit: Marshall Hansbury/In My Humble Opinion

Listen: What it means to know who your ancestors were

If you have not yet, I highly recommend you read the first story about Pen Park. Our landscape here in central Virginia has so much unmarked history — here’s an example of one place we are learning more about.

Two women stand next to a tree, looking at camera
Credit: Mike Kropf/Charlottesville Tomorrow

Forgotten no more: Descendants of family enslaved at Pen Park plantations visit their unmarked graves for the first time

Thanks for joining us today,

Angilee Shah, editor-in-chief

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Angilee Shah

Hi, I'm Charlottesville Tomorrow's Editor-in-Chief. I’d love to know more about want you want from local news. Let’s find a time to talk. And keep up with our work by subscribing to our free email newsletter!