‘Hidden History’ uncovers African-American heritage in Virginia

| February 18, 2014

Sweet Briar College research professor Lynn Rainville has released “Hidden History: African American Cemeteries in Central Virginia,” a book chronicling 200 years of African-American cemeteries in this area and the stories behind the individuals buried in them. Published by University of Virginia Press, it is available on Amazon and in select bookstores.

For her research, Rainville spent many years traveling to more than 150 African-American cemeteries — many unknown or forgotten — across several Virginia counties, including Amherst and Albemarle. Combining historical, anthropological and archaeological perspectives, she analyzed personal and official documents, as well as gravestones and graveside offerings.

“The subjects of Rainville’s research are not statesmen or plantation elites; they are hidden residents, people who are typically underrepresented in historical research but whose stories are essential for a complete understanding of our national past,” according to UVa Press. “Rainville’s findings shed light on family genealogies, the rise and fall of segregation, and attitudes toward religion and death.”

In addition to uncovering the stories behind these cemeteries, Rainville also discusses the challenge of historic preservation, and how visitors may be able to help preserve the sites.


Sweet Briar College: When you started working on this book, did you know then that it would turn into a multi-year project, or did it evolve over time?

Lynn Rainville: I had no idea this would become such a large research focus for me. I arrived in Virginia in 2001, having last studied the history of slavery in high school. When I started working at Sweet Briar in the fall of 2001, I was very surprised to realize that it was formerly an antebellum plantation with a large enslaved population. Coincidentally, a then-dean of co-curricular life was trying to decide how to commemorate the recently re-discovered slave cemetery on campus. I joined forces with her to locate some descendants from the African-American Fletcher family and we succeeded in locating and talking with Jasper Fletcher. I mapped [the slave cemetery] and researched it — to the extent possible given that it had no inscribed markers — and figured that would be my contribution to local history, and that I would return to my recently completed Ph.D. focus on Near Eastern archaeology.

Instead, I visited a large slave cemetery in Albemarle County — the Mount Fair Cemetery discussed in the book — to try to better understand the Sweet Briar burial ground, and from there I started receiving calls from landowners in Albemarle and Amherst who ‘thought they might have a slave cemetery on their property.’ And the calls have never stopped.

The book took years and years to write because I kept finding new cemeteries. I was only going to focus on slave cemeteries, but then I realized that I couldn’t understand the mortuary variability of antebellum black cemeteries without studying the broader trajectory of historic African-American graveyards. And thus, I outlined the focus of the book.

SBC: What interested you most about the subject? What kinds of questions were you hoping to answer?

LR: My initial question was, ‘Given the restricted freedom of enslaved men, women and children, what were their options when it came to mortuary traditions?’ Related questions were: ‘Could they bury their loved ones where ever they wanted on the plantation?’ ‘Did their owners provide them with coffins?’ ‘What types of stones did they use to mark the burial locations?’ I also became interested in the differences and similarities between white and black gravestones. Could you tell if the deceased was white or black from their headstone?

SBC: How did you conduct your research?

LR: I used a variety of methods to locate historic black cemeteries, everything from soliciting information from hunters, who often explore rural lands where these cemeteries lay forgotten; hearing about graveyards disturbed by construction projects; studying old maps for clues; [to] interviewing longtime residents. Once I located a cemetery, I mapped it, researched the individuals buried within the graveyard, tried to locate descendants and photographed every stone and transcribed the inscriptions. Some of this information is on my project website.

SBC: How does the book contribute to African-American history and people’s understanding of what constitutes African-American culture, particularly in this area?

LR: My hope is that this book encourages all local residents to visit historic cemeteries to learn from the epitaphs and memorials of past generations. These sacred sites can help genealogists fill in missing pieces of family history, they can teach children about their ancestors and neighbors, and they contain information about attitudes towards death, religion and the family. In Amherst in particular, old black graveyards preserve the names and accomplishments of formerly enslaved individuals and their descendants who fought for emancipation and then built African-American churches and communities after the Civil War. Their legacy remains with us today but is in danger of being forgotten. Fortunately, [some of] their stories are preserved on gravestones for all to read — if we would just take the time to stroll through these ‘deathscapes.’

SBC: Is there anything you wish you could have included? Any questions you couldn’t answer?

LR: I have tons of unanswered questions, including: how to interpret some of the cryptic symbols used on slave gravestones, how often enslaved individuals were able to return to the antebellum cemeteries in order to mourn their dead, and where Martha Penn Taylor was buried. I found several of her family members and, most likely, she is buried nearby under a now-illegible stone in the Coolwell Baptist Church Cemetery, but I would have loved to find an inscribed gravestone with her name.

Lynn Rainville is director of the Tusculum Institute at Sweet Briar College. She received her Ph.D. in Near Eastern archaeology in 2001 and has taught anthropology and archaeology courses at the University of Michigan, Dartmouth College, the University of Virginia and at Sweet Briar College. Rainville has received numerous grants, including from the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the Wenner-Gren Foundation, as well as from private donors. Her personal website is www.lynnrainville.org. More about her book is at lynnrainville.org/HiddenHistory.

Janika Carey


Category: Academics, Tusculum Institute