Daughters of Zion Cemetery: Grassroots Preservation How-To

by Liz Sargent, FASLA, Edwina St. Rose, and Bernadette Whitsett-Hammond

Photograph of Daughters of Zion Cemetery
Daughters of Zion Cemetery, established in 1873, is located in Charlottesville, Virginia. Conditions within the cemetery have been improved dramatically through the efforts of the Preservers of Daughters of Zion Cemetery, a grassroots preservation advocacy group established in 2015. This view shows the recently restored cast iron surround at the grave of Rev. M. T. Lewis (center). / image: Liz Sargent

The following article highlights the importance of documenting historic landscapes for perpetuity. For the 12th annual HALS Challenge competition, the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) invites you to document historic Black landscapes. Black people have built and shaped the American landscape in immeasurable ways. Documenting these histories and spaces will expand our understanding of America’s past and future.

In 1873, the Daughters of Zion Society formed a charitable organization to establish a burial place for African Americans in the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, as an alternative to the segregated municipal option at Oakwood Cemetery. Although the exact number is not known, ground-penetrating radar (GPR) surveys revealed as many as 600 burials at Daughters of Zion Cemetery. With many of the founding members having passed, the Society was dissolved in 1933 and the cemetery began to fall into disrepair. Although family members often cared for individual graves or plots, there was no one responsible for maintaining the cemetery. It became overgrown and subject to vandalism.

With proprietorship of the property in question, the City of Charlottesville assumed ownership of the property through eminent domain in the 1970s. Despite this change and a subsequent listing of the property in the National Register of Historic Places in 2009, the condition of the cemetery continued to decline. In 2015, a group of local pastors, led by Rev. Dr. Lehman Bates, II of Ebenezer Baptist Church, appealed to the local community to devise a plan to improve the condition of the cemetery and address long-term care. Tours to the grounds conducted by descendants, pastors, city representatives, and preservationists revealed evidence of vandalism, hazardous trees, erosion, fallen and broken headstones, plot surrounds with missing elements, and no signage to identify the cemetery by name.

Within a few short months of the tours, Edwina St. Rose and Bernadette Whitsett-Hammond, who have family buried at the cemetery, and Maxine Holland formed the Preservers of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery (Preservers) to address the needs associated with the cemetery. At the time, St. Rose served on the City of Charlottesville Historic Resources Committee, a volunteer group that met regularly with city officials to consider historic preservation opportunities. Charlene Green, then Charlottesville Director of the Office of Human Rights, also brought concerns regarding the Daughters of Zion Cemetery to the attention of the Historic Resources Committee. Members of the committee, which included Liz Sargent, FASLA, vowed to assist in raising awareness and support preservation initiatives. In speaking to St. Rose about her work on the project, Sargent learned that the city would likely fund repairs if provided with an appropriate plan and cost estimate for the work based on discussions about the most pressing needs for the cemetery. Sargent offered to prepare a Preservation Strategies Plan with cost estimates for the group to present to Charlottesville City Council. With the blueprint in hand, the Preservers successfully lobbied City Council for their plan and were allocated $80,000 to complete several preservation initiatives. In just a few short years, the Preservers, with the assistance of several other dedicated volunteers, have accomplished nearly all of their restoration goals. Their work and creative advocacy strategies suggest a model for other grassroots preservation efforts on raising the awareness, funds, and interest necessary to achieve a vision or set of goals.

In the interim, the Historic Resources Committee developed language in support of new historical markers for each of the City’s three historic cemeteries, including Daughters of Zion Cemetery. The unveiling of the marker served as the first occasion for the Preservers to gather and celebrate the cemetery, coinciding with a Memorial Day celebration in 2016. Finally, the forgotten plot of hallowed ground received proper signage explaining the history of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery and providing context for its existence within the then-segregated city of Charlottesville. It was also in 2016 that Sargent prepared HALS documentation (HALS VA-69) for the Daughters of Zion Cemetery as part of the annual HALS Challenge, in another effort to raise awareness about the project. This article affords the opportunity to check in on the property five years later.

Sargent met Edwina St. Rose and Bernadette Whitsett-Hammond at the cemetery in April 2021 to talk about their accomplishments to date, lessons learned, and future plans. As the group walked around the cemetery, Whitsett-Hammond noted that for her, the work of the Preservers is as much about preserving memories as it is providing a proper setting for ancestors from the segregation era:

I have several family members who are buried here. . . I remember as a child we used to put on our oldest clothes once a year to come clean up the family plot. We had to beat our way through the overgrown vegetation, and cut away brambles, vines, and small trees to reach the plot before we could begin removing dead branches and other vegetation to clean up the area around the headstones.

For St. Rose, who helped establish the group’s successful Facebook page in 2016, the experience has been special for how it has brought the community together and strengthened many family connections. The Facebook page in particular quickly became a focus of descendants of those buried in the cemetery and others, who responded enthusiastically with testimonies, photographs, and memorabilia of the Charlottesville African American community and its accomplishments.

In October of 2016, Preservation Virginia, a statewide preservation organization that featured the Daughters of Zion Cemetery on its 2016 List of Most Endangered Historic Places, held its annual conference in Charlottesville. The conference included a presentation on the efforts to restore and preserve the Daughters of Zion Cemetery and a site visit.

One of the main goals of the Preservers was to begin the process of repairing damage to headstones and other features. Early projects included adding a fence to define the western boundary of the cemetery where it closely edged a residential neighborhood and properties’ boundaries were unclear; addressing erosion concerns; and consulting with local preservation specialists regarding appropriate treatments for repairing cracked and broken headstones. Recognizing that the headstones remain the property of the family, the Preservers first needed to gain permission for any repair work from known descendants. Once successful in this endeavor, they found local cemetery preservation experts and skilled masons, some of whom offered to donate time to the project. The first headstone repair project was completed in 2016.

Another key accomplishment of 2016 was initiation of the ground-penetrating radar (GPR) surveys of the cemetery to determine the location and extent of unmarked burials. The Preservers’ project manager and local archaeologist Steve Thompson identified a firm (NAEVA Geophysics, Inc.) that conducted GPR surveys and provided interpretive reports and maps. The final GPR findings were recorded in a dramatic graphic image that suggested the burial ground to be more extensive than first thought.

Map of the three phases of GPR survey conducted at Daughters of Zion Cemetery. / image: NAEVA Geophysics Inc.
Map showing the results of the GPR survey suggesting the presence of many more graves than are currently marked. / image: NAEVA Geophysics Inc.
Bernadette Whitsett-Hammond (left) and Edwina St. Rose (right) standing alongside the Memorial to the Unknown funded by the BeCville Community Arts Project. / image: Liz Sargent

With many of the original headstones lost or missing, the Preservers also considered options for honoring those buried at Daughters of Zion whose graves were no longer marked. In 2017, the Preservers designed a granite Memorial to the Unknown, which was dedicated during a well-attended ceremony held on Decoration Day, observed on the Sunday before Memorial Day. Every year since, the Preservers have held a ceremony at the cemetery on Decoration Day, bringing buckets of flowers donated by the Charlottesville Garden Club and local florists that attendees place on the graves. The ceremony was held virtually in 2020 and the in-person gathering will again be postponed this year due to COVID-19 safety concerns. However, courtesy of the Charlottesville Historic Resources Committee, a new historical marker that reflects the updated estimation of burials at the historic cemetery is slated to be unveiled in Spring 2021.

In 2017, the Preservers attracted the support of the University of Virginia History Department. Professor Lisa Goff’s Hands-On Public History class spent a semester conducting research into the history of the cemetery and those buried at the Daughters of Zion Cemetery. Their research was exhibited during an event held in April 2017 that included rarely seen artifacts from the University’s Special Collections Library. The updated “Gone but Not Forgotten” exhibit later moved to the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society for a six-month stay, including a visit by Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. In August 2019, the exhibit was on view at CitySpace during Unity Days C’ville and featured photographs from the Holsinger Portrait Project.

In 2018, the Preservers asked the Charlottesville Department of Parks and Recreation to evaluate trees in the cemetery for any hazardous conditions that might lead to headstone damage or concerns for the safety of visitors. Based on the evaluation, the City carefully pruned or removed hazardous limbs and trees consistent with the guidance in the Preservation Strategies plan.

Since 2016, the work of Preservers of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery has been featured in television news reports, newspaper articles, and online publications. The group’s Facebook page remains a very active community interaction site along with the Audio Tour created by Preserver Dede Smith. With the assistance of Preserver and local historian Jane Smith and intern Justin Greenlee, the long-awaited website will launch in Spring 2021 and volunteer days with the University of Virginia’s Alpha Phi Omega (APO) service fraternity under the direction of Preserver Robert King will resume in the fall.

Cast iron fencing surrounding the Goodloe Family plot targeted for future restoration. / image: Liz Sargent

Although Decoration Day will not be held in person this year, everyone looks forward to a return to “tradition” in 2022. Having participated in the past, we can say that the process of having the assembled group lay fresh flowers on each of the graves in the cemetery on Decoration Day is a profound and solemn occasion that also reminds us of the power of grassroots preservation.

Authors Edwina St. Rose and Bernadette Whitsett-Hammond continue to work toward the goals set in 2015 as founding members of the Preservers of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery. Liz Sargent, FASLA, is a Historical Landscape Architect and Principal of Liz Sargent HLA.

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For more information on the 2021 HALS Challenge, Historic Black Landscapes, please see this previous post. Each month between now and the July 31 HALS Challenge deadline, we’ll be showcasing historic black landscapes that have already been documented for HALS, like Daughters of Zion Cemetery, highlighted here, Marian Anderson Heritage Village and the Anne Spencer Garden, featured in April, Allensworth: A Town Built by and for African Americans, featured in March, and the Smokey Hollow Community, featured in February. If you missed the HALS Challenge webinar on Acknowledging Historic Black Landscapes with Elizabeth J. Kennedy, ASLA, NYCOBA-NOMA, Andrea Roberts, Ph.D., Joseph Disponzio, Ph.D., and Christopher Stevens, ASLA, the recording is now available.

2 thoughts on “Daughters of Zion Cemetery: Grassroots Preservation How-To

  1. Alexandra Sargent Capps May 30, 2021 / 11:39 am

    Amazing article! I wish the news would focus on these events that bring people together and celebrate history and heritage rather than always dwelling on the horrible things that happen. The preservation of this burial site is an amazingly meaningful community effort. Congratulations to all involved for your hard work on this important restoration.

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