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Hidden History

African American Cemeteries in Central Virginia

Lynn Rainville

Publication Year: 2014

In Hidden History, Lynn Rainville travels through the forgotten African American cemeteries of central Virginia to recover information crucial to the stories of the black families who lived and worked there for over two hundred years. The subjects of Rainville’s research are not statesmen or plantation elites; they are hidden residents, people who are typically underrepresented in historical research but whose stories are essential for a complete understanding of our national past.

Rainville studied above-ground funerary remains in over 150 historic African American cemeteries to provide an overview of mortuary and funerary practices from the late eighteenth century to the end of the twentieth. Combining historical, anthropological, and archaeological perspectives, she analyzes documents—such as wills, obituaries, and letters—as well as gravestones and graveside offerings. Rainville’s findings shed light on family genealogies, the rise and fall of segregation, and attitudes toward religion and death. As many of these cemeteries are either endangered or already destroyed, the book includes a discussion on the challenges of preservation and how the reader may visit, and help preserve, these valuable cultural assets.

Published by: University of Virginia Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xvi

In the spring of 2008 I received a series of phone calls and e- mails from an archaeologist who has spent dozens of hours mapping Virginia cemeteries with me. Leah and her husband, Joey, first noticed the damage when they witnessed a crew from the electric company driving machinery across the small cemetery...

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pp. xvii-xx

I have been fortunate to receive advice and support on this project from numerous individuals. These enthusiasts ranged from descendents of individuals buried within the cemeteries that I studied to professional historians and archaeologists and from landowners to hikers. Since my work on historic African American cemeteries...

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1: Finding Zion

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pp. 1-11

On a crisp fall Saturday in 2008, following a lead in attempting to locate a “Burton Family Cemetery,” I traveled down a rural Virginia lane to an African American church cemetery. When I arrived, I found the churchyard deserted, with only silent stone sentinels to note my approach. The gravestones mark each life, oft en clustered into families, illustrating untold...

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2: Locating and Recording the Dead

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pp. 12-22

Before recording gravestones, you have to know the location of the cemetery. Unfortunately, there is no master database for American cemeteries. There are dozens of websites that purport to list all local cemeteries by county or township, but these sites rarely include historic nineteenth- century burial grounds. The...

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3: The Accidental Museum

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pp. 23-50

Gravestones can be read like books; each stone contains the abbreviated story of a life. The information that can be gleaned from gravestones includes birth and death dates, names, gender, age at death, and on occasion, hints regarding the occupation or social class of the deceased. But if we “read” more broadly and study...

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4: Slave Cemeteries and Mortuary Rituals

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pp. 51-65

Enslavers restricted and denied the human rights of African Americans. However, many masters allowed enslaved people to decide how, and sometimes where, to bury their dead.1 But African Americans had limited control over the timing of funerals and the graveside commemoration of the dead. This chapter...

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5: The Network of Death

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pp. 66-75

The gravestone is an invaluable source of information, but it is only one of a complex series of mortuary rituals that can reveal much about the culture of the dead. These include rituals of preburial such as wakes and funerals, the participation of funeral homes and churches, and the contributions of burial societies...

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6: Lost Communities of the Dead

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pp. 76-97

Mid- twentieth- century trends toward increased housing development and consequent rising land prices and tax rates forced many African American families to sell their land and attendant gravesites. Difficult economic times also forced families to migrate to northern cities to seek employment. In their absence...

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7: Gravestone Genealogies

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pp. 98-113

A 2006 listing on an Albemarle County online real estate site read, “Don’t miss this single family house for sale by agent. This great home is equipped with five bedrooms and five baths. Come and see for yourself.”1 The photograph accompanying the advertisement showed a four- thousand- square- foot redbrick house...

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8: Connecting Communities Through Their Burial Grounds

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pp. 114-131

For southern African Americans, the search for their ancestors oft en leads to an antebellum plantation. But tracing ancestral lines from postbellum families to enslaved, antebellum ones is oft en circuitous. Aft er emancipation, some African Americans took surnames for the first time. Others, celebrating their newfound...

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9: Commemorating and Preserving Historic Black Cemeteries

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pp. 132-148

Sometimes the presence of an African American cemetery is obvious—when an area is enclosed with barbed wire or contains visible markers or is adjacent to a church, for example. But oft en, what remains is so subtle that it is likely to be missed by the casual observer. Left unmarked, these cemeteries are more oft en...

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10: Cemeteries as Classrooms

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pp. 149-162

When I began my research into historic African American cemeteries, I envisioned local residents lingering over old tombstones, reading epitaphs and poignant inscriptions aloud. While some of this vision has come to pass, it became clear that some segments of the interested audience would not be visiting the cemeteries...

Appendix: Gravestone Recording Forms

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pp. 163-166


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pp. 167-178


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pp. 179-186


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pp. 187-194

E-ISBN-13: 9780813935355
E-ISBN-10: 0813935350
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813935348
Print-ISBN-10: 0813935342

Page Count: 216
Illustrations: 21 b&w photos, 6 maps, 3 tables
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 874809747
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Hidden History

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • African Americans -- Funeral customs and rites -- Virginia -- Amherst County -- History.
  • African Americans -- Funeral customs and rites -- Virginia -- Albemarle County -- History.
  • African American cemeteries -- Virginia -- Amherst County -- History.
  • African American cemeteries -- Virginia -- Albemarle County -- History.
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