The Stories We Have Not Heard: Finding and Mapping African American Cemeteries

The Stories We Have Not Heard: African American Cemeteries in LouisaTomorrow afternoon, we will gather in a small room that used to be a porch at a local museum in Louisa County, Virginia. The handful of us will hear from Lynn Rainville about the key components of locating, mapping, and recording information about African American cemeteries, and then, a representative from the Department of Historic Resources will talk about how our work can help save these sacred spaces.

I am honored to be a part of the Will the Stones Whisper Their Names? Project to identify and map African American cemeteries in Louisa.

Cemeteries are special places to me, places where tiny pieces of the stories of people’s lives are captured in stone, places where the holiness of life is preserved in a world that doesn’t consider much holy anymore.

But more and more – and also since forever in this nation – the places where African American people are buried are considered less than sacred. They are forgotten, ignored, and sometimes destroyed – through intention and apathy, and if we do not take steps to save them, we will lose these places of history while also disrespecting and dishonoring the people who rest in those places.

I grew up less than a quarter-mile from a slave cemetery on the Bremo plantations where I was raised. While I did not always treat the space with the respect it deserved, I always knew it to be special. Now, it is, perhaps, my most favorite place on the earth.  By grace, it is protected – with literal walls and the guarding of ancestors – and it will be there in another 100 years, I’m sure.

Other burial places, especially those where the bodies of formerly enslaved people are buried, are not as graced. They are regularly paved over, plowed through, or hidden in overgrowth and forest. People’s grandmothers and great-uncles are buried here.  We all need to know of these places both as places of remembrance for families but also as places where we remember our hard, broken, beautiful, terrible history.

So tomorrow, when Dr. Rainville teaches us and we hear about how our efforts might save a few of these holy sites, I will listen carefully, both for their teaching and for the ancestors’ who whisper to us about all the stories we have not yet heard.

If you’d like to learn more about the Will The Stones Whisper Their Names? Project, please visit our Facebook page. 

When Peach Was Captured as a Runaway

When Peach Was Captured as a RunawayYesterday, as I read the papers of the Morris family of Louisa County, Virginia, at the Small Special Collections Library at UVa, I found a piece of paper about a third the size of a notebook page. It read:

John Sadler took up and brought before me on runaway negro man slaved named Peach belonging to Mr. Richard Morris of the said county about seven miles from the said Morris. I order that you pay the said Sadler for taken[sic] up the said runaway ten shillings and sixpence a mile for carr[y]ing home. Given under my hand this twenty seventh day of May 1773.  – John Boswell

I read it out loud to the people in the room, and we all got a little quiet. It’s heavy to read of a person needing to runaway. It’s even heavier to read they were caught.

I have read this little piece of history over and over again, this tidbit that might get dismissed so easily, and I sit with this moment when a man, a man whose house has a town named after it – Boswell’s Tavern – wrote out not only that he was sending a man back into slavery but demanding that someone be paid for that “trouble.”

This moment and the ones leading up to it, the hours that Peach must have planned and plotted, studied routes as he steered the wagons to Gordonsville, they changed his life.  This could have been the moment to break home or to steel his resolve.  This could have been the moment to end his life as he knew it.

After I read this slip to the other researchers in the room, one woman asked what would have happened to him. I can’t answer that in specific for Peach, but I imagine he was whipped, maybe maimed so he could not run again.  A toe removed would not have been out of the question.

But we don’t know. We probably will never know. This is, of course, one of slavery’s legacies, the silence around these people’s lives.

So today, I stare at our peach trees, and I think of the man named after their fruit.  A man whose infant face must have spoken sweetness and the gentle fuzz of life to whoever named him.

Today, I think of Peach, a man brave enough to run away.  A man caught 7 miles from a place that was never really his home.

 

If you have ties to Louisa County, Virginia, the Morris Papers at UVA Special Collections may have some information that would be valuable to you.  And if you think you may be kin to Peach, please, please, please let me know.  I’d love to know you and hear about your family.