Our Visit to a Slave Graveyard, and 150 Years of Debris

We walked through the woods to the large clearing. A barely discernible wall surrounded the area where the slaves had been buried. At the far corner, small flags stood perched at attention, fluorescent orange and blue, marking the gentle excavation already done.

It all felt, well, perhaps as haunted as any place I’ve ever been. But haunted isn’t exactly the word – inhabited? Unbearably heavy? Having been mostly forgotten but itself never forgetting? That’s the feeling the leaf-covered plot of space in the woods gave me.

“How old are you, Cade?” Andi, a friend from college and our tour guide of the estate, asked my oldest son.

“Eight,” he said proudly.

“Hmmm,” she said. “At eight years old, a slave was expected to hoe in the fields from sunup to sundown.”

Cade’s eyes went wide. I stare at his frail, thin arms. I try not to imagine the sunburn that would have covered his narrow shoulders, the blisters bubbling out between his fingers during that first week of being eight years old.

“And how old are you, Lucy?” she asked.

“I’m seven,” Lucy said quietly.

“It would be your job to stay behind all day and watch the little children,” Andi said to her quietly. This said to Lucy, the lovely girl who spends most of her days reading, or imagining, or being what she is: a child.

* * * * *

Only a handful of gravestones still stand in that clearing, even though well over 100 slaves lived, worked, and died there. So we make our way methodically through one of the corners of the graveyard, poking thin metal rods into the soft earth, hoping to find stones that may have fallen over and been covered with dirt and debris during the intervening 150 years.

Thunk. My metal rod taps against something. I move it three inches to the side. Thunk. Again. Thunk. I call Andi over. We dig carefully with our hands, pulling away the dirt, ripping out the roots of weeds and grass. 150 years of debris. And there it is.

The edge of what looks like a quartz rock.

“Quartz isn’t native to this area,” Andi says. “This is probably the edge of a headstone.”

We mark the area with a colorful blue flag. Later, on a drier day, Andi will expose more of the stone, brush away the dust, exhume the past.

* * * * *

Later, when the sun has set and our stomachs are full from dinner, we walk out and start a fire. The kids melt marshmallows and make s’mores. The adults mostly sit and talk, enjoy the warmth, smile at the children.

At one point I lean my head back and look up into that sky, immeasurable. Stars stare down at me, unmoving. It catches me unawares, the realization that the slaves buried in that graveyard looked up at the same sky, the same stars. Many of them bore their children in a dark night such as this. Many of them exhaled their last breath under these same constellations. The molecules that made up their bodies are here, all around me.

And to be honest, I don’t know what to do with that, because if I let my soul touch just the edge of that cold, mostly buried rock of injustice, my throat aches and constricts, and my eyes feel heavy and inhabited by too much emotion.


15 Replies to “Our Visit to a Slave Graveyard, and 150 Years of Debris”

  1. Shawn,
    I can’t tell you what it means to me to have been able to share this place with you and your family, to be able to see you find that stone, and most of all, to hear the way you have so absorbed why this place is important and painful and beautiful. Thank you.

  2. Ok I’m seriously considering loading my 3 kids n Russ in our 12×10 tow behind camper and book!!! It’s like a daily adventure!! Not just any adventure but one that will form n impact those sweet little minds n help create their person!! I SO WANNA DO THAT!! (but maybe in a wee bigger camper!)

    Thank u for letting us live vicariously through your adventure!!! My kids can’t wait to hear what ur doing next!! Everyday after school they ask!! (started reading yalls blogs to them the day u left….it’s their bed time story..:)

    Safe travels my friends!!! Can’t wait to see where we go next!!!

  3. Shawn,
    What an experience that must have been! When your probe touched that piece of quartz, you made a direct connection with a period of history that very few others get to experience. Through that thin piece of metal, you made a direct connection with another human being who lived, toiled, suffered and maybe died involuntarily over a 150 years ago. I wonder what his or her name was? I wonder what their story was? Did they have a family? Did they ever laugh? A hallowed moment…indeed.

  4. I have always loved old cemeteries and the stories they tell, but your story made me realize that some cemeteries have far more heartbreaking stories than others. The experience will stay with your older children all their lives, and I can only imagine the good that could come from that. This was a thought provoking post and I thank you for sharing it.

  5. I remember visiting a “black cemetary” in rural central New York state some years ago. Until that day I honestly had never considered the fact that even in the north there were segregation of burial grounds. The little local community had taken on the responsibility to restore and maintain this beautiful plot of land on a hillside. Until this day I can picture that place and experience pain that it had to exist.

    In addition to the incredible experiences that your family is having, you are touching us by writing about them and sharing them with us. Our family’s summer plans have already changed because of your family’s adventure.

  6. Shawn, I will be posting this to a group on FB called Coming to the Table. It’s a group of Americans who are working to erase racism and to exhume stories from the past. You are part of their work, and this piece is beautiful.

    God speed.

  7. Shawn, “Our Visit to a Slave Graveyard, and 150 Years of Debris”, is quite an interesting blog. I created the Slave Dwelling Project which has afforded me the opportunity to spend a night in 29 extant slave dwellings in 8 states througout the US. Unfortunately, for various reasons, less than half of those places have identified and maintained the grave yards where the formerly enslaved are now buried. I find it interesting that you are involing your children in the process. Please keep up the great work that you are doing and continue to inspire. American history can benifit from all that you do.

    1. Joseph – thanks for letting me know about your project. My family and I were only spending a few days in Bremo Bluff, but if you want to contact the person in charge of the project, her name is Andi Cumbo and her blog is at http://andilit.com

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