Daughters of Zion Cemetery

An article in the Daily Progress by Chris Suarez in April 2015 reviews preservation activities in the Charlottesville Daughters of Zion Cemetery, named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2010. Please see an excerpt of the article below:

A long-standing African-American heritage site tucked behind rows of houses south of downtown Charlottesville might receive a restoration soon.

Named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2010, the Daughters of Zion Cemetery in the Ridge Street neighborhood also is recognized as a local landmark, but its graves and burial plots have been neglected for several decades, according to a number of neighboring residents and several community organizations.

“The tombstones are in disrepair, and there’s sometimes garbage around the plots,” said Pete Armetta, a member of the Ridge Street Neighborhood Association. “[Association members] went to the city’s parks and recreation department to ask that they fix it up, but they told us they’re only responsible for mowing the lawn and some basic landscaping work.”

At a Monday forum organized by the Charlottesville Dialogue on Race, Councilor Dede Smith — who also sits on the city’s Historic Resources Committee — told residents, stakeholders and members of the faith community that neighborhood development plans could bring new scrutiny to the Daughters of Zion and adjacent Oakwood and Hebrew cemeteries.

“I think the timing is perfect to talk about restoration and preservation of this historic site,” Smith said.

“In terms of funding, the city sets aside preservation funds, but I think this project would be very attractive to outside funders as well.”

In addition to the neighborhood association, members of the African-American Pastors Council and churches such as Mount Zion, First Baptist on West Main Street, Union Baptist and Ebenezer Baptist have said that the formerly segregated cemetery needs improved oversight from city officials and families who own burial plots.

A historical marker similar to the two in front of Venable Elementary and Lane High schools also has been planned for the cemetery, which was added to the city’s Strategic Investment Area in 2013.

Plans to restore the cemetery, Armetta said, are the initial steps to preserving a legacy site important to Charlottesville’s history.

“Sentimentally, this could be something wonderful,” he said. “The cemetery has been here a long time, and we have a chance to make it part of our city’s story.”

The cemetery is estimated to contain nearly 300 graves, but only 150 headstones are distinguishable. The last burial at the cemetery took place in 1995.

Roughly bounded by Dice, First, Oak and Oakmont streets, the Daughters of Zion Society, a female-run African-American mutual aid society rooted in the legacy of Reconstruction, founded the cemetery in 1873.

Attempting to counter sexism and racism that was rampant in the late 19th and 20th centuries, the Daughters of Zion; other aid societies such as the Good Samaritans, True Believers and the Victoria Tabernacle Lodge; and spiritual leaders from Ebenezer Baptist Church met in Zion Hall on Fourth Street Northwest in the Vinegar Hill neighborhood.

In 1964, the hall, along with most of the neighborhood, was razed. The property then came under public ownership in 1971.

Today, the former site of Zion Hall is set to become the Marriott hotel on West Main.

Lynn Rainville, a Daughters of Zion historian and author of “Hidden History,” a book investigating the legacy of various African-American cemeteries, wrote about the significance mutual aid societies played in post-bellum segregated society.

In the book, she calls Zion Hall “one of the most important hubs of social and ceremonial activity in Charlottesville’s African-American community.”

“The Daughters of Zion Cemetery is the only tangible link to this center of activity on Vinegar Hill and the important role mutual aid societies played during Reconstruction in Charlottesville’s African-American community.”

The few burials that have taken place at the Zion cemetery in the latter half of the 20th century remained exclusively African-American.

Challenges the restoration project will face, Smith and Councilor Kathy Galvin said, are getting permission from all of the families who own the burial plots and finding trade professionals to repair damaged graves and headstones.

In addition to repairs and beautifying the landscape of the cemetery, families and community members are requesting that fencing or some form of border be placed to distinguish the cemetery from the rest of the neighborhood.

Road repairs along the cemetery also have been called for because erosion has caused some headstones to jut into the roads.

Other groups expected to get involved with the project include the Jefferson School African-American Heritage Center, Rivanna Archeological Services and the Public Housing Association of Residents.

The current strategic plan for the city notes the Daughters of Zion, Oakwood and Hebrew cemeteries, but no specific development is considered for any of them, Galvin said.

To read the full article, click here