Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Historic African-American Cemeteries

Mr. Robertson standing in front of his family cemetery
I recently visited a historic African-American cemetery and met with the cemetery’s owner and caretaker, Mr. Langston Robertson. The cemetery dates from the mid 1800s to the 20th century and I would estimate at least 100 people are buried there including many of Mr. Robertson’s family members, some of whom were enslaved.  

Mr. Robertson has brought students to the cemetery to teach them about history. He often brings  the original deeds with him and discusses how the cemetery has stayed in the family for many generations.  

Shells, glass and pottery from the cemetery

In cleaning up the cemetery, Mr. Robertson has found numerous pieces of broken glass, pottery, shells, and other items. After researching African-American cemeteries and taking trips to West Africa, he was able to identify these items as being objects, sometimes used or owned by the deceased, placed on graves for various reasons.

A statue from Africa guards the cemetery
In many rural graveyards, African- Americans have marked the final resting places of loved ones in this distinctive manner. Despite the massive conversion of Africans to Christian faiths, many retained former rituals associated with the respect for the dead including placing shells, stones or personal property of the deceased on graves. The practice of placing shells on graves has been traced back to West African beliefs that sea shells enclose the soul's immortal presence.

For more information on African-American burial practices and customs in Virginia, please visit Dr. Lynn Rainville’s website. Rainville, a professor at Sweetbriar College, has been researching African-American cemeteries for years. Currently, she is working on a book tentatively titled, African-American Mortuary Variability: Historic Gravestones and Cemeteries in the Virginia Piedmont.