Unmarked grave sites in Charlottesville raise questions about the people buried there and the history that left them behind
Words by Vani Agarwal. Photos by Denise Brookman-Amissah. Graphics by Alyce Yang.
Every day, barring unusual times when there is an ongoing pandemic, the 600-plus students living in the Gooch-Dillard Residence Area would rush to their classes, eat meals at Runk Dining Hall, procrastinate on their laundry, walk across the open balconies and spend time with suitemates and friends. These students also occupy the space of a former plantation, where a few hundred feet from their dorm rooms — just beyond a small patch of trees — lies an overgrown gravesite containing forgotten bodies of enslaved people.
“Most [first-year residents] do not know about the [Maury] cemetery… They are not actively engaging with the history… [and] we’d love for it to be something that every first year gets educated on,” said Kyndall Walker, a first-year College student and co-founder of the Gooch Dillard letter committee. In November 2019, the student committee created a petition to include the history of the site on the Housing and Residence Life website that currently has over 300 supporters. The petition was well received by the University administration, and the team is now working with architects and educators to implement some of the ideas it laid out.
“The cemetery just doesn’t encompass the humanity of the people that reside in this space,” Walker said. “These people had families, they had hearts, they had faith, they had spirits, and they deserve to be memorialized in a way that encompasses that.”
She brings the University community’s attention to a question that is difficult, but to many, imperative — how do we acknowledge these people and reckon with a history that allowed for the theft of their personhood?
The Maury Cemetery, minutes away from Gooch Dillard dorms, houses at least nine unmarked graves of enslaved people who were held in bondage by the Maury family. When the University purchased the land in 1947, Alice Clark, a descendant who was selling the plot, recalled that there used to be a gravesite somewhere on the land. In 1983, archeologists tested a limited area of the land, and nine graves were identified. In an effort to acknowledge and conserve the area, the University blocked off the land and installed a plaque which reads, “This area contains unmarked graves believed to be those of slaves of the Maury family, owners of piedmont in the nineteenth century. University of Virginia 1984.”
However, the gravesite became overgrown, and therefore hidden, due to a lack of conservation and maintenance by the University. In 2019, Student Council’s Building and Grounds Committee worked with professors on the President’s Commission on Slavery to install two interpretive panels detailing the history of the gravesite and conservation efforts at the University. Currently, the team is working to make the panels more visible by better matching the walking paths of typical visitors to ensure that they see both panels while walking near the gravesite.
The cemetery is on land once owned by the Maury family, who also owned the people buried there. In 1809, Reuben Maury purchased a 290-acre swath of land that would later become the Piedmont plantation. Although very little is known about the Piedmont plantation, it is estimated that the Maury family owed about 17 to 20 African Americans.
“To put it in perspective, Rueben Maury is a relatively large slaveholder… just by the fact that very few people own 10 or more [slaves], but [Thomas] Jefferson owned 200 [slaves] at any one point in his life, so there is a real issue of magnitude here,” said Kirt Von Daacke, associate dean of history and co-chair of the President’s Commission on Slavery.
But the reality of gravesites like the Maury cemetery is that the stories of these people will never be uncovered. In fact, according to von Daacke, archeologists do not even know if all of the gravesites have buried bodies — families would occasionally fake burials due to concerns of bodies being dug up for medical study. These fears were not unsubstantiated. The University’s Anatomical Theater, later destroyed in 1939, was used for anatomical study and the storage of cadavers — most often stolen African American corpses.
The Maury Family Cemetery is just one example of unmarked graves on University grounds. Another unmarked gravesite containing a total of 67 unmarked graves was discovered just north of the University Cemetery, located on the intersection of Alderman and McCormick Road, in 2012. This unmarked gravesite contains the gravesites of people who were enslaved laborers of the University, professors and hotelkeepers who owned the places where students lived.
Beyond the University, the use of forced labor was also deeply entrenched in Charlottesville, and thus there are other gravesites for enslaved and formerly enslaved laborers throughout the city. The Daughters of Zion Cemetery — founded in 1873 as a secondary burial option for African Americans in opposition to the segregated cemetery in Charlottesville — is one of only 34 historic African American burial sites in the country. However, the cemetery eventually fell to disrepair — marred by overgrown weeds and vandalized grave stones.
In 2015, a group of historians and preservationists from the Charlottesville community presented a proposal to detect, document and preserve the graves of those who had been buried in the Daughters of Zion cemetery. The team’s first aims were to reach a more accurate estimation of the number of people buried in the site as well as to determine the exact bounds of the cemetery. The site has a capacity of 2,000 graves, but only 218 are currently recorded — there are likely hundreds more people buried in unmarked gravesites. The reality of black communities at the time meant that they often did not have the financial resources that many white families had to maintain their own gravesites
However, in addition to resource inequality, legislative funding has also disportionately supported the preservation and documentation of historical white cemeteries. Before February 2017 — when the Virginia legislature passed a bill that subsidized funding for the preservation and documentation of historical African American cemeteries — only cemeteries with the graves of Confederate soldiers were eligible for government funding for preservation.
Unmarked grave sites are ubiquitous — with sites being on Grounds, in Charlottesville, in Virginia and throughout the United States. While the number of enslaved African American gravesites that have been forgotten or destroyed is unknown, many more are being uncovered, either through archeological digs or during construction. Just recently, 145 gravesites were discovered underneath a high school in Florida — where the local community is having a similar conversation as the Charlottesville and University communities about the acknowledgement of African American history.
These unmarked gravesites tell a story about the systematic efforts to reduce African American people to their physical worth — an unmarked grave implies a lack of personhood by removing someone of their name and historical legacy.
But the graves also tell another story — one of scale. Slavery was everywhere in Charlottesville. There was neither a street nor school nor shop where slavery was not present in one form or another. All white people, regardless of whether they personally owned enslaved people, benefited from the practice of slavery either through leasing, the purchasing of products made by enslaved laborers or the establishment of nation-wide white supremacy.
In Albemarle County, in 1860, 52.2 percent of the population was being held in forced bondage. Compare this to the greater Virginia area — where 30.7 percent of people were enslaved — and to the greater United States — where 12.6 percent of people were enslaved — it is clear that slavery was truly pervasive in Albemarle County. Places like Charlottesville and Virginia are described by historians as slave societies — societies in which every aspect of their functioning utilizes enslaved labor to some capacity — and the University was no exception.
Although Thomas Jefferson did not allow students to have their own enslaved laborers, slavery was an intrinsic part of University life — professors, hotelkeepers and, as is well-documented, Jefferson himself utilized enslaved labor. It was a University rule that hotelkeepers needed to keep at least one person in bondage for every 20 students. Those enslaved people worked and were housed in the basement of Hotel A on the West Lawn — just one floor below the dining hall for the white, male student population.
Beyond the ownership of people, the Charlottesville community, like many in the South, also participated in the leasing of people. “Because a slave is human property, that person, that slave can be commoditized in any way the owner sees fit and that includes leasing,” said Assoc. History Prof. Christa Dierksheide. “That’s a big way that whites are making a profit off of slaves in Virginia.” It is a practice that is less known but worked to strip enslaved people of any sense of personhood by reducing them to an object that could be traded and shared.
Charlottesville, from the onset of its settlement, actively participated in the enslavement of people, but not everyone fully understands this truth. When the Confederacy lost the Civil War, so began the Lost Cause movement, which sought to essentially rewrite the story of the Civil War and the Antebellum period which preceded it. The new history that the movement aimed to tell was characterized by the adoration of Confederate Generals, the creation of the Antebellum image with novels like “Gone with the Wind,” and the contextualization of the Civil War as a conflict about state rights.
The Lost Cause movement also created an image of slavery that implied the locality of it. Although slavery is often perceived as having been limited to plantations or farms, it was truly everywhere.
“Institutions [such as the University] are able to marshal a slave labor force because of a much larger system at work,” Dierksheide said. “And it’s not actually just Virginia. It’s the Cotton South, its global financial markets, particularly Britain …. It is a global system. But I think that, in focusing just on institutions, [the ubitquity of slavery] gets lost.”
Furthermore, slavery is just one piece in a long history of racism in this community — the eugenics movement and, later, Jim Crow-era segregation are also incredibly relevant. Eugenics was an emerging psuedo-science in the early 1900s, and the University was at its epicenter. Eugenists sought to study and reaffirm the supposed superiority of the white race on the basis of emotional, physical and intellectual traits. They worked to justify their theories as preventing genetic mixing that would cause the destruction of American society — particularly affluent white society.
Edwin Alderman, president of the University from 1905 to 1931, worked to recruit and support eugenics researchers from across the United States to create eugenics research programs for the University. Those researchers and educators contributed to laws and policies that maintained a power structure in Charlottesville through housing discrimination, healthcare discrimination, sterilization programs and much more.
At the same time, Charlottesville systematically and efficiently used Jim Crow and other unique Virginian laws to deprive African Americans of any rights offered to them by the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments.
Virginia would implement poll taxes in 1902 to reduce the state’s black electorate. Charlottesville would wait 61 years after the Civil War to establish the first high school for African Americans — a segregated school that would be named Jefferson High School. In 1914, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors would approve the forced removal of African Americans from McKee Row in order to establish segregated neighborhoods. Those laws and other Jim Crow legislation worked to create systemic inequalities in education, health and wealth that continue to affect the black community in Charlottesville today.
A long history of enslavement and segregation has worked to erase black accomplishments, people and families. “Slavery is an erasure of personhood, and through that erasure of personhood is an erasure of history,” Dierksheide said. “That really gets to the heart of what slavery really was … it’s theft of a person and a theft of their past [including] access or knowledge of [familial] connection.”
However, thanks to the work of archeologists and conservationists, either in the Charlottesville community or at the University, we finally have access to some of these stories of black history. One of those stories is of Free State — a rural black community with over 450 residents that was established when Amy Bowles, a free black woman, bought 200 acres of land. However, the land was purchased by a development company in the 1990s and is now the Dunlora neighborhood — a wealthy suburban community.
In 2010, while anthropologists Aaron and Jillian Wunsch were walking around the Dunlora neighborhood, they stumbled upon surviving homes from Free State. They then convinced the community, and later the developer of Dunlora, to conduct an anthropological review. The review found that Dunlora and another proposed, but not yet built, neighborhood constituted a majority of Free State.
During the review, a cemetery with 60 to 70 unmarked graves was found on the property — only one gravestone is legible, reading “Mary Bowles, Died Dec. 6, 1882.” Development of the new community continued, but in an effort to acknowledge its history, all of the streets were named after members of the original Free State community, and the gravesite was set aside as parkland.
Another story to which historians currently have access is that of the Catherine “Kitty” Foster Site on Venable Lane. The story came to light in 2003 after the University funded an archaeological report that compiled research about the site and its history. Kitty Foster was a free black woman who purchased land in 1833 for $450 on what is now University property. However, the area surrounding the site — called Canada — was occupied and owned by other free African Americans. The Kitty Foster site was discovered when a construction worker saw a discolored rectangular patch of dirt and refused to continue construction work.
The patch was an unmarked grave, and the discovery of that grave quickly led to the discovery of another 12 in 1993 and another two in 2005. The Kitty Foster house and the Canada gravesite forced the University community to recognize the story of freed black people who were enslaved and later employed by the University — one of many factors which would ultimately lead to the design and construction of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers on University Grounds that was completed in April but was not unveiled as originally scheduled, due to the coronavirus pandemic that effectively shut down Grounds.
Far more is known about the Free State and Canada communities compared to other similar communities. These specific congregations of freed black people after the Civil War were able to record their names, establish familial connections and bury their people freely. However, the inequality of wealth and education meant that the Free State and Canada communities were never able to fully record their own stories. While there is knowledge of some of their stories, the historical record will always be incomplete.
There still remains the essential question of how to acknowledge and reckon with the theft of personhood experienced by both enslaved and formerly enslaved peoples. The answer is deeply complicated and multifaceted, but one might begin with the auction block that was stolen from Charlottesville’s historic town square just a few months ago. As reported by C-ville Weekly, a small bronze plaque which read “Slave Auction Block: on this site slaves were bought and sold” was stolen by an Albemarle resident and activist, Richard Allan. The plaque, which was inlaid into the ground, was often unseen by those who walked past it. This, to Allan, was unacceptable, and thus he stole the marker as a form of protest. It is also notable that Allan, as a white activist, has incited a larger conversation about the people who are shaping the narrative around black history.
The theft of the plaque is indicative of frustration with the current insufficent acknowledgement of slavery both at the University and also in the greater Charlottesville community.
“There are a lot of problems with public history at this university right now,” said Spencer Goldberg, a second-year in the College and historian for the University Guide Service. “The first thing that comes to mind is the lack of public history, but we can also talk about the public history that exists.”
Public history refers to the methods historians use to get history to reach the public. One of the most common methods is the creation of structures, such as plaques, monuments and statues. The plaques currently in place in Charlottesville have been deemed, by many, to be inadequate. As such, there is now a movement to establish new monuments to recognize the role that enslaved people have played in the Charlottesville community.
However, a conversation about public history in Charlottesville is not complete without also acknowledging the Confederate statues that are prevalent in the area — whether it be the Robert E. Lee Statue that sparked the Unite the Right rally in August or the other statues on street corners, in front of courthouses and in town squares.
“[Plaques to enslaved laborers] are very inadequate, particularly when you compare them to the Confederate statues and their plaques, because not only do you have marked graves with the Confederate statues, you have this big monument. With slave labor, you have no monument and you have no grave sites — they’re not even marked,” Goldberg said.
A combination of both a lack of monuments to enslaved laborers and the miniscuality of those which exist, especially in comparison to other public history in the area, has created a sense of frustration with the handling of stories of black history.
To understand the current conversation surrounding the acknowledgement of slavery, it is useful to start at the beginning of historical discovery, which is most often during the construction of new buildings. As a way to prevent the conundrum all together, “you [have] got to … take a breath and do the archaeological survey [first] to make sure there’s not another story there that you need to tell,” von Daacke said.
If something is found during the initial archaeological survey, the next step, according to von Daacke, is to “make [the site] visible, interpret it and document it,” whether that means installing a panel or fencing off the area to ensure that the area is respected and acknowledged. Community organizing also plays a role in these efforts. For example, the petition addressing the Maury Cemetery near Gooch Dillard was written by a group of first-year students — including Kyndall Walker — and was circulated and signed by members of the University community.
According to Elgin Cleckley, professor of architecture and creative director of _mpathic design, design plays a crucial role in successful interpretation. Cleckley is currently working on the installation of a memorial in Charlottesville to John Henry James — a black man lynched in Charlottesville in 1898. In collaboration with the impressive National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., columns commemorating the nation’s victims of lynching are being sent to communities around the U.S., including Charlottesville.
The thoughtful orientation of the memorial puts the viewer in direct view of the Monticello Hotel, in front of the Stonewall Jackson statue and between two trees.
“I wanted to create an environment [where] you should start to question the landscape that you’re in,” Cleckly said. “All of a sudden now, with architecture and design, you start to rethink how things are built, how spaces are built, who built them, what are their origins? …. I think design is incredibly powerful because it can set up this space where it makes you question and also educates.”
But once an archeological survey has been completed and its history has been documented, interpreted and displayed, is this enough? Is it enough to have one site commemorated like this? Or two? Or three? When can we say that we are done?
To von Daake, the answer lies within another question — “Can you be a casual visitor to the University and leave here never encountering anything that acknowledges [slavery]? …. My measure is how do you make it dispersed interpretation and memorialization so [that there are] little things everywhere?’”
Dierkshiede emphasized that when only grand structures are established, students or visitors can choose whether they want to acknowledge this history, but it also implies that the use of enslaved labor was limited to institutions like the University or Monticello when, in actuality, it was everywhere and touched everyone.
“You can’t just make a grand memorial to talk about this one era of history and excise racism or address it,” Dierksheide said. “If [slavery] is in every building on every piece of Lawn… [it] needs to be recognized in the landscape for people to recognize it as a seminal part of the past, but also the history of present.”
Dierksheide described stumbling stones used in Germany to commemorate Holocaust victims. Small bronze plaques embedded in the ground in front of victims’ last known places of residence are present throughout neighborhoods of Germany. Neither a local nor a tourist can walk around without seeing some sort of commemoration of those people. She wants to see something similar done to commemorate enslaved people at the University. Such an endeavor would solve the fundamental problem that both von Daacke and Dierksheide see with current efforts to acknowledge enslaved people’s history, as stumbling stones are universal, but small, commemorations that force people to reckon with the history of spaces everyday.
However, the push for small commemorations is not to take away from the value of larger structures such as the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers or the National Museum of African American History in Washington, D.C. These buildings and monuments have the power to speak loudly.
“[The Museum is] a building that speaks monumentally, but it also is a space of education,” Cleckley said. “It’s also [a] space that makes everyone understand that it’s all of our history…. When you’re there … you start to understand by its design what it’s saying about culture and African American culture.”
Beyond community interaction with enslaved people’s history, student interaction is another obstacle. However, it is one that allows for unique solutions since the University has the capacity to enforce a level of interaction with the history of slavery on this campus.
“I don’t see any reason why we don’t make it at least heavily suggested, if not mandatory, that students attend a history of African Americans tour — or the other alternative is creating a movie or some sort of film,” Goldberg said.
To reckon with history, especially a history that is so rooted in the suffering of others, is difficult. But it may be a far greater disservice to continue ignoring the hands, voices and names that built the University and the nation. As Dierksheide emphasized, “We have a moral obligation to make sure that the world knows about this [enslaved] person and these [enslaved] people… and we have a real obligation to absolutely respect [these people].”