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