- Associated Press - Sunday, May 8, 2016

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) - The Daughters of Zion Cemetery was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010, but there are no markers that make the designation - or the Charlottesville cemetery’s cultural significance - known. Instead, there’s stray trash and sinking and broken gravestones.

That may all change soon, however, as the city will host a rededication of the cemetery that’s been degrading for decades. In addition to the rededication, $80,000 in public funding will be used to restore the historic African-American cemetery.

According to advocates, the restoration project will give the public an opportunity to revisit and honor the lives of African-Americans who lived in Charlottesville, some of whom impacted the area in a significant way.

“The final resting place for these trailblazers should be reflective of the life that they lived - very dignified and respectable,” said Maxine Holland, an advocate for the restoration of the cemetery.

Those trailblazers include Benjamin Tonsler and Burkley Bullock, two African-American men who became professionals after emancipation who were deeply involved in the community.

Tonsler’s legacy lives on as contemporary social activists are challenging schools, governments and businesses to hire more people of color as a way to diversify the workplace, inspire young people and reflect today’s demographics.

Born enslaved, Tonsler eventually was freed and became a schoolteacher. Years later, he became principal of the city’s segregated Jefferson Graded School, which he headed for about 30 years. During that time, Tonsler encouraged and motivated hundreds of children.

Bullock, a late-19th-century magnate in local real estate, helped foster a community of African-American businesses and homeowners through the Piedmont Industrial and Land Improvement Company, a nine-man firm that financed home sales and developed property.

Because of his entrepreneurship, former slaves and their offspring had an opportunity to live the mystified American Dream that their ancestors had been denied for generations - the privilege of forging fortune in a capitalist, free-market system.

While Tonsler, Bullock and others’ stories continue to be shared and celebrated in some circles, a landmark to their lives is practically forgotten.

The resting place, Holland said, should reflect the “elegance and honor” that individuals such as Bullock and Tonsler created in an exciting, self-revolutionary period.

Behind the effort to restore the cemetery are several city officials, community activists and descendants of the people buried in the cemetery. Uniting them are an appreciation of posterity and a desire to honor the lives of those who contributed to the spirit of the city in myriad ways, helping it grow after the Civil War and into the 20th century.

Following a Dialogue on Race conference about the cemetery last year, The Preservers of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery formed.

In a fashion similar to the original Daughters of Zion, a female-run African-American mutual aid society that founded the cemetery in 1873, a group of women, several of whom have family buried in the cemetery, organized themselves to effect change.

Holland, who is a member of the group, said community- and self-pride resonated with many for decades.

“That was one of the motivating factors for the purchase of that property,” she said. “They wanted their family members to have a place of dignity and ownership. In the 1800s, that was an emphasis in the African-American community - own your own, whether it’s your cemeteries, your house or your business. That was the theme.”

Bernadette Whitsett-Hammond - a member of the group whose great-grandmother Mary Nelson Lewis was a founding member of Ebenezer Baptist Church - said she believes the cemetery still “reveals itself as a place of reverence” despite its current condition.

“(The Daughters of Zion) worked very hard . to come together and purchase the spot because they realized how important it was for people of African-American descent to have a dignified place in which to be buried,” she said.

“I think that’s a story of love, pride, determination and fortitude. That’s a beautiful story. It should be told and it should be shared.”

At the conference last year, the city’s Historic Resources Committee said it had put together plans for a marker that will be installed at the location. Mary Joy Scala, of the city committee, said a new, $1,787 bronze marker, designed by Franklin Bronze Plaques, will go up in May at the rededication ceremony.

More work at the cemetery is needed, however. It’s believed that half of the graves are not visible. Approximately 300 people are believed to be buried there, but a geophysical survey could reveal where exactly the other half is interred.

Because of vandalism, maintenance mishaps, migrating tree roots, weather and soil erosion, many of the graves have been displaced and damaged, said Edwina St. Rose, a descendant of Bullock.

Bullock’s gravestone is identifiable, but its current location does not match the historical record of where he was buried originally.

Among the goals of the restoration project is relocation of gravestones to their original sites.

“I’m very concerned about the space there that has no markers,” St. Rose said. “We need to investigate . to see if we can determine where there may be additional burials.”

St. Rose said Bullock’s gravestone could be one of the first that’s repaired and relocated. She said the recent restoration may serve as an example of what can be accomplished by the group, the city and families that still own the burial plots of their ancestors.

Although people were still buried at the site until 1995, maintenance and use of the cemetery started to wane in the 1970s once cemeteries were no longer segregated. It was around that time that the city took over the site, as the Daughters of Zion had disbanded almost four decades before and several of the families that owned burial plots had either died off or moved away from the Charlottesville area.

The burial plots still belong to the families, meaning the city is not allowed to work on them without their permission. The city has engaged in light maintenance of the site since then, mostly just mowing the grass and trimming trees when necessary,

The group plans to work with burial plot owners and the city to repair the broken graves and possibly save the ones that are vanishing into the ground. According to Alex Ikefuna, director of the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development Services, his department and Parks & Recreation will be involved in the effort to restore the cemetery.

“Parks & Recreation will play a lead role in the rehabilitation of the cemetery and we will be working with them,” Ikefuna said. “At this point, (Neighborhood Development Services) is helping coordinate the historic preservation aspects of the site.”

The project may take some time, and the city’s allocation of $80,000 likely will be just a portion of what it will take to fix all of the gravestones and identify who else may be buried there.

“We may never, and most likely, will not be able to identify everyone there,” Whitsett-Hammond said, “but at least we’ll be able to acknowledge if someone is interred there.”

Regardless, the effort is expected to shine a light on one of Charlottesville’s historic treasures. Just as important, some advocates say, the attention is highlighting what needs to be preserved in the city as plans are being put together to redevelop the area south of downtown.

Justin Sarafin, director of preservation initiatives for Preservation Virginia, noted that future development could potentially endanger the site.

“There’s heightened concern about the work that could occur around the site and what protections there could be throughout that process,” Sarafin said.

Though those concerns are there, he applauded the city for investing in the site and extended his sentiments to The Preservers of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery.

“I see this as a shining example of how a local effort can create forward movement on an issue like this,” he said.

“I’ve always believed it’s important to know your history,” St. Rose said. “I think a large part of our African-American history is within that cemetery.”

The rededication ceremony for the Daughters of Zion Cemetery will be held at 2 p.m. May 29. The ceremony will be followed by a reception at the Barrett Day Care Center on Ridge Street.


Information from: The Daily Progress, https://www.dailyprogress.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide