Preservation of African American Historical Sites

Historic Preservation of African American Historical Sites

Some of the damage that has been done at The Daughters of Zion Cemetery in Charlottesville, VA.

This week, I was thrilled to see that Preservation Virginia, the historic preservation organization for my home state, had listed several important African American historical sites on their list of Virginia’s Most Endangered Historic Places.

Let me be clear – I’m not just thrilled that those places are on the list because I study African American history and think these sites are important to black people – although that is reason enough to preserve them. No, these sites are important to all people, regardless of racial designation.  The stories of these places matter to everyone because they are part of our collective history, and far too often, African American historic sites are overlooked on lists such as these because they are considered “niche” sites that are not valuable to everyone.  I’m glad to see Preservation Virginia disregarding that pattern AGAIN this year with their list.

I’m particularly excited that The Daughters of Zion Cemetery in Charlottesville made the list because my friend Edwina St. Rose’s ancestors are buried there and, as is far too often true for African American cemeteries, it had fallen into great disrepair.  In fact, Preservation Virginia has taken the preservation of African American cemeteries and burial grounds as a key initiative for the coming years.  (If you’d like to have a great resource on African American cemeteries near at hand, be sure to pick up a copy of Lynn Rainville’s book, Hidden History.) 

Also, on the list are

  • The Howland Chapel School and Teacher’s cottage:

New York educator, reformer and philanthropist Emily Howland (1827 – 1929) funded the one-story frame building two years after the Civil War ended. She and members of the local African American  community supported and maintained the school until the Northumberland County school board took control of the property

  • The Oakhill Slave Dwelling:

In late 2014, the site was compromised by a team of treasure hunters from the Discovery Channel series “Rebel Gold.” Using dubious techniques, the team excavated a large depression northeast of the ruin and the slave quarters. While some items were given to the Pittsylvania Historical Society, the treasure hunters boasted of recovering coins, a gold ring and other artifacts, which they kept. Because of the publicity, local historians fear further looting at this site. Statewide, there is concern that shows like this will promote unsupervised excavations at other sites.

  • and communities threatened by utility developers, like Union Hill in Buckingham County:

Post-Emancipation African American settlements and burial sites, like those at Union Hill in Buckingham County, reveal the successes and struggles of generations of African Americans in Virginia.

My hope and prayer is that these kind of designations will help add the necessary public scrutiny to these places so that they will be preserved and be allowed to tell these important stories that shape us all.

To read the full list of places on Preservation Virginia’s most endangered list, please visit this link


A quick note – my book Steele Secrets, which tells the story of how a young girl, Mary, battles to save a slave cemetery near her home, is on sale for $1.99 (e-book edition). You can download a free chapter, watch the video trailer, and find links for purchases here – Thanks.