Daughters of Zion Cemetery Survey

The Daughters of Zion Cemetery in Charlottesville has been the site of restoration efforts to preserve this significant African American historic resource. Facilitated by a mix of public and private funds, these efforts have included site clean-up, maintenace and restoration, and education/awareness. Most recently, a historic site inventory was undertaken with contributions from Center for Cultural Landscapes affiliate members Liz Sargent and Steve Thompson. The purpose of the survey is to look for evidence of forgotten and unmarked burials in order to inform landscape architects and preservationists on how they might redesign the site. A recent article in The Daily Progress by Chris Suarez profiles the preservation work underway at the cemetery. You can read an excerpt below and the full piece here

On an unseasonably warm day last month, a skeleton crew was camped at a historic Charlottesville cemetery looking for evidence of forgotten and unmarked burials. Pushing a lawnmower-like, ground-penetrating radar machine up and down the partially sloped, verdant section of the historic African-American graveyard behind Oakwood Cemetery, the crew diligently scanned the open field for clues about what may have been there before time and nature weathered and hid its history. 

At the Daughters of Zion Cemetery, about 150 gravestones record nearly 200 burials. Some believe, however, that more than 300 people have been buried there since the cemetery was created in the 1870s. Following a preliminary survey of the site in September, one local archaeologist said he thinks there could be five times as many burials at the site. In the northeast corner of the approximately 2-acre cemetery, a field of green could be blanketing several hundred more burials, said Steve Thompson, of Rivanna Archaeological Services. “I suspect it’s going to be quite a bit above 300,” Thompson said about the number of burials in the cemetery. “Given the density of graves in that part of the cemetery that has the most markers in it now, the area of the cemetery has enough space to contain 1,500 burials.”

About a month later, NAEVA Geophysics, the company subcontracted to do the radar survey of the site, has yet to release a final report on its work. Still waiting on the results, Thompson said the survey is not expected to reveal an exact number of graves. Instead, the survey’s primary purpose is to inform landscape architects and preservationists on how they might redesign the site. “We’ve moved forward with developing preservation strategies that articulated all the things one would need to think about with the preservation of the cemetery … [and] to make decisions about what it will look like in the future,” said Liz Sargent, a landscape architect working with the Preservers of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery, a group that came together last year to restore the site.

Last month, the nonprofit Preservation Virginia held its annual conference in Charlottesville. The two-day conference included a workshop that used the Daughters of Zion Cemetery as a case study for how a community can successfully restore and preserve a historic African-American resource. Originally established by the African-American Daughters of Zion Mutual Aid Society in the decade following the Civil War, the city acquired the segregated cemetery in the 1970s. The city has done basic maintenance of the site for more than 40 years now, but the cemetery largely has been forgotten otherwise — that is, until recently.

Earlier this year, after the new preservation group developed plans to restore the site, the city decided to contribute $80,000 to assist in the effort. At this point, private fundraising has helped to finance the repair of eight broken gravestones, said Edwina St. Rose, a member of the preservers group. Nearly a quarter of the total city funding has been claimed for a number of projects at the site so far such as the radar survey and sediment erosion control. About $7,000 has been allocated for the removal of two trees, but instead of coming from the $80,000 that’s in a special account for the restoration, it will come from the city’s parks and recreation department fund. Regarding the impact tree and vegetation growth might have on the burial sites, Sargent said “we thought it was really important to have an arborist come and evaluate all the trees to make sure there are no hazards there.”

Given that cemetery caretakers suspect vandalism may have had a role in the deteriorating state of the site, Sargent said other measures to safeguard the area are being considered. Explaining that the surveys will let them know where there might be burials, she said that new fencing could be installed around the perimeter of the cemetery. “We need to establish some way to protect the cemetery, keep eyes on it and fence areas where we have already noticed that people are accessing the cemetery in a not-so-great way from the surrounding neighborhoods,” Sargent said, adding, “the more people know there’s interest, the less they’ll be inclined toward vandalism.” “We’re very pleased with the progress so far,” St. Rose said. “We’re looking forward to what comes next.”