Because Stones Can Speak

Doing justice to African American historic places  photo by John Robinson

by Andi Cumbo-Floyd

In Charlottesville, Va., a small graveyard sits quietly amongst a grove of trees behind a two-story farmhouse. Here the bodies of at least six prominent African Americans lay at rest near the area they knew best—the Hydraulic Mills Neighborhood, a once thriving community of free people of color.

Jesse Scott Sammons and his family have been interred in this cemetery for over 100 years, but in 2013, their peaceful rest was nearly destroyed when a proposed highway bypass called for their bodies to be exhumed and moved to another location. While the moving of any grave is a troubling, disruptive experience, this removal was particularly disquieting since it was planned without the permission—or even the knowledge of—the Sammons family descendants.

DSCN0655As Erica Caple James, a Sammons descendant and professor of anthropology at MIT, said about the news that the bypass had been rerouted around a pet cemetery but not around her own family's graves, "It's tremendously disturbing and makes one wonder about the politics involved."

Fortunately someone informed a Sammons family member and told a group of local historians, the Central Virginia History Researchers (CVHR), about the planned exhumation, and they informed other members of the Sammons family, who leapt to action and garnered media coverage and political will to stall the removal. At this moment it seems that the bypass will have to take another route, but the Sammons family and the members of CVHR are still vigilant to be sure that the highway doesn't disturb the graves of these people.EVS005_Evans,Thornton

Sadly the near destruction of the Sammons Cemetery and the nearby Jesse Scott Sammons house is just one example of the countless places of African American historical importance that have been destroyed through ignorance, apathy, or occasional malevolence. In Charlottesville, the Hydraulic Mills neighborhood was flooded when the local reservoir was built in 1966. At plantations all over the South, slave cemeteries are paved over or bulldozed through. At the plantation where I was raised, my father accidentally mined the stone foundations and hearths from slave cabins when building walls around the estate, a decision he rues to this day. With every destruction a segment of our important history as a country is erased.

Shelley Murphy, president of the Central Virginia Afro-American Genealogical and Historical Society, explained to me just why these places are so important to the African American community and the American culture at large. "It is important for children today to understand who was here and how that person connects to them. I believe it is critical to the family as well as the community to be able to identify and honor those that came before us. Burial grounds are a way to show who was here and their contributions as a family or community member. It is another way of 'telling the story.'"

I spoke about this with Lynn Rainville, author of Hidden History: African American Cemeteries in Central Virginia (University of Virginia Press, 2014) and professor of anthropological archaeology.  "In the case of African American history," said Rainville, "not only is this subject sometimes overlooked in the history books—like ignoring the role of Maggie L. Walker, the first black woman to form a bank in America—but the sites associated with black families (the farm where Booker T. Washington grew up), their contributions (the first safety hood for protecting firefighters from smoke inhalation, invented by Garrett Morgan), and their burial sites (the New York African Burial Ground that was almost destroyed by a federal building project in the early 1990s) are sometimes forgotten and/or destroyed. It is an important shared duty to protect these sacred sites. I have spent over a decade trying to locate, research, and protect historic African American cemeteries. I have come to view this work as an opportunity to bring the past lives of ordinary and extraordinary African Americans into the light."

And light is needed. So much of African American history is marginalized or unknown. Because enslaved African Americans in the United States were not often allowed to learn to read and write, and because Jim Crow laws in the South kept many African Americans from receiving a full education for many decades, the accomplishments, stories, and daily experiences of many black people in the United States went unrecorded. Thus, the places in which these people lived, worked, and were buried sometimes provide the only information we have to learn from and understand a crucial segment of our American history.

Further, the lack of care shown to the Sammons Cemetery and other historical places associated with the lives and accomplishments of African Americans indicates a larger societal disregard for these people and their stories. As Cinder Stanton, former historian at Monticello said, "You already have to be written into history to some degree to have your properties or your person or your social status to be considered significant." Yet, in the case of African Americans, American history has largely written them out. Thus, the places associated with their stories are even more important as we try to build a society where equality is a fact and not just a myth.

As Christians, we are called to be agents of justice, or mishpat. In an August 2013 article in Relevant magazine, Tim Keller explains the most basic meaning of the word justice: "to treat people equitably. Mishpat, then, is giving people what they are due, whether punishment or protection or care. … It also means giving people their rights."

In our culture, which values story and place and family as core features of our identity, one way we can bring justice is to work and preserve the places of historical import for everyone in our community. If we couple that call to justice with the biblical mandate to serve those who are oppressed and silenced, then we find ourselves with a clarion call to be sure African American history is preserved—be it in story, archival document, or place.

Perhaps if we, as followers of Christ, will begin to learn about these places that are so important to the African American members of our family and our nation, if we will begin to appreciate them and treasure them like we do other great places often associated only with European American history—Monticello and Mt. Vernon, for example—perhaps then we will move one step closer to building a nation that is truly just and equal.

Andi Cumbo-Floyd (AndiLit.com) is a writer, editor, and writing teacher whose book The Slaves Have Names tells the story of the people enslaved on the plantation where she was raised.  She and her husband live on God's Whisper Farm in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. 

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