In the fall of 2021, we awarded the Fluvanna County Historical Society a grant through the Sustaining the Humanities through the American Rescue Plan program. The historical society is using the funds to help restore two historic Black cemeteries in Fluvanna County. We recently caught up with Tricia Johnson, the executive director of the historical society to find out how their projects are going.
First, could you tell us about the projects that Virginia Humanities’ grant is funding?
We (the Fluvanna Historical Society) are working with two historic Black communities in Fluvanna County to recover and restore their histories, and to preserve the remarkable cemeteries there.
Can you tell me a little bit about each cemetery?
Oak Hill Cemetery is located in the post-Emancipation free town of West Bottom near the James River. While working to restore the cemetery and identify ways to honor those buried there, members of the West Bottom Baptist Church and nearby residents are learning more about the lives of their enslaved ancestors and those who survived and persevered after Emancipation.
Downriver on the James, members of Columbia Baptist Church and local residents are learning more about “Free Hill” – a thriving community of free people of color with a long and vibrant history in the once-booming industrial and transportation hub. At the heart of the work is Free Hill Cemetery, established circa 1807 and damaged in the 1960s when the town council ordered the cemetery logged and, according to some oral histories, graded.
How did the Fluvanna Historical Society find out about these cemeteries?
The society has been documenting cemeteries in Fluvanna since the 1960s, and each of these cemeteries were in our records – but the unmarked burials had not been recorded, nor had the history of these communities been studied. A friend from Columbia reached out about Free Hill Cemetery and within weeks another friend from West Bottom did the same about Oak Hill. Visits with these friends to these two spaces led to the determination to study them and to do so in a collaborative, community-led manner.
What are you doing to restore and preserve the cemeteries?
An archaeological survey of each cemetery has been completed, with a substantial report that identifies unmarked burials, and there are plans for fences, congregate memorials listing those buried at the cemeteries in unmarked graves, individual markers for each unmarked burial, and historical interpretive signage.
As part of the work, community historians are receiving training in historical and genealogical research with the ultimate goal of creating a history center at each church that will encourage further research, enable local residents to learn about their family and community history, and ensure that the narratives of the past are locally-held in the control of the descendants of those whose lives are being studied and honored.
Why is it so important for the local community to be the ones telling these stories?
It is important to not only focus on results (archaeological reports, historical narratives, protection of the sites) but on the journey itself. Building relationships and trust within the communities of West Bottom and Columbia has proven to be restorative and healing work. Seeing leaders rise to the challenge and watching them inspire and engage other community members to learn more about their own ancestors and the history of the place where they live only reinforces the ideas that all history is local history, and that garnering inspiration and understanding from those who came before us can enrich our own lives.
Are there more cemeteries like these in Fluvanna?
The answer is yes, and no, not that we know of. Yes, there are more historically Black cemeteries (both church cemeteries and private family ones) in Fluvanna in need of study and restoration. We consider our current projects to be pilot programs that we can use in the future to model similar work in other places. Having said that – both Oak Hill Cemetery and Free Hill Cemetery were used for decades as community cemeteries. Unaffiliated with any church and ensuring that every person who lived in the community had access to a free burial plot when they died, they each became the heart of the post-Emancipation neighborhoods that grew there. While community cemeteries in Black residential areas are not an uncommon thing in more urban settings, they are not numerous in rural areas; that unusual status of these sites drew our attention and made them the focus of our pilot studies and collaborative efforts.
What drew you to Virginia Humanities? Why did you apply for a grant here?
Working in the field of public history in Virginia, I was well aware of Virginia Humanities’ work in the study, restoration, and preservation of history in the Commonwealth. These two projects seemed especially well-suited to the mission of Virginia Humanities and the stated intentions of the grants program. We were beyond grateful to learn of the funding we received for these twin projects; even more grateful were the community historians in West Bottom and Columbia. A true difference is being made in those neighborhoods because of the funding that has enabled these efforts. We are, simply put, incredibly grateful for the help.
Funding for the grant to the Fluvanna County Historical Society came from The National Endowment for the Humanities through a program called Sustaining the Humanities through the American Rescue Plan (SHARP). The SHARP grants are a part of the American Rescue Plan Act, passed by Congress in 2021 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.