For years, Diane Brown Townes has been on the hunt for her ancestors.
She joined several historical research committees to uncover her family’s history. But she had yet to discover strong ties within Charlottesville until she saw a picture of her aunt’s house in a presentation from the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society in 2020.
Intrigued, she contacted the society to ask why. That got a conversation going about different families who lived and died in Charlottesville and, eventually, Brown Townes reached an interesting conclusion: She has ancestors buried at Pen Park.
“I feel more connected to them now,” Brown Townes said.
Brown Townes’ ancestors and others who are in the unmarked graves at the public park are believed to have been enslaved by the Gilmer family, the prominent owners of the plantation that was on the land that is now Pen Park. In the early 2000s, anthropologist Lynn Rainville, director of Institutional History at Washington and Lee University, discovered indentations near the white family plots and suspected they were burial sites. It took years until Charlottesville officials took action.
Since 2019, the city’s Historic Resources Committee and the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society have been on a quest to uncover the names of enslaved laborers 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 allow people outside of the project to get more information on who was enslaved and potentially find more descendant links.
Two students from the University of Virginia School of Architecture initially added local historians’ research into an Airtable database last year, said Tom Chapman, executive director of the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society. They were able to add over 1,000 names — of those enslaved, their relatives, descendants and connections — to the database.
The historical society, UVA students, descendants of the enslaved and other project participants are continuing the work to uncover more descendants. Each semester, interns will keep updating and tightening the database until the project is complete, said Chapman.
The idea for the database was inspired by a similar project at Clemson University, where students helped researchers uncover possible graves of enslaved persons in the Woodland Cemetery on their South Carolina campus. That project organized the information in a way that made it easier for researchers to reference. Chapman and the rest of the historical society want to do the same with the Pen Park project.
Brown Townes is among the first round of descendants linked to graves, along with the Waller family. Ideally, the group working on Pen Park’s history hopes to find enough descendants to form a committee that will find ways to better memorialize the graves.
“How can we commemorate and memorialize this space in a way that is meaningful, and is a way that recognizes that it’s intentionally made invisible?” Chapman asked. “For us, it’s thinking through trying to make these personal connections and then seeing how the descendant community themselves want to formulate a committee or formulate their own group.”
As of now, the area is roped off to prevent nearby golfers and park visitors from walking over the site. A sign sits in front of the rope reminding passersby to be respectful of those buried under the grass.