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  • Philip N. J. Wythe's Headstone
  • Ryan K. Smith (bio)

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The headstone of Philip N. J. Wythe in Barton Heights Cemeteries, Richmond, Virginia. All photographs, July 2017, by Kate Thompson Feucht.

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The headstone marking the grave of Philip N. J. Wythe now lies flat on its back, face to the sun, partially hidden among the tall grasses at the Barton Heights Cemeteries in Richmond, Virginia. The marker's form is deceptively simple. Made of coarsegrained sandstone, it features no pictorial symbols, no death's head or cherub or weeping willow. Rather, its primary decoration comes in the form of its inscription. Blocky, even letters fill the entire face of the stone:

            THIS        Stone is    Placed Here by        Benjmn Wythe        In Memory of            his BrotherPhilip N. J. Wythe    who was Born inRichmd Va Sept 3d    1803 & departed            this life    Decm 24th 1827

Above the lengthy inscription, baroque lines divide the top of the stone into three sections—two smaller shoulder caps leading up to a central, rounded tympanum. Taken in its entirety, the marker is an embodiment, as its namesake was an embodiment, of the interconnectedness of southern history. Overlooked today, it challenges us to engage with the southern past in a way that few other artifacts can.

Approaching the object, the first thing we observe is its very survival. People of African descent, the vast majority of whom were enslaved, made up a steady half of Richmond's population. For generations, this half of the population had only one public burial option: the so-called "Burial Ground for Negroes" located on the steep banks of Shockoe Creek. And this site was far from permanent. In use as late as 1816, the unbounded ground was prone to flooding, where, as free black resident Christopher McPherson lamented, "every heavy rain commits ravages upon some one grave or another, and some coffins have already been washed away." This "mock of a grave yard" also became the site of the city gallows, where criminals were shamed, publicly executed, and then interred in humiliation. Richmonders of African descent who may have felt reverence toward this ground and its offerings soon saw a jail built on the site as well as a charity school for whites. In the twentieth century, the construction of an interstate highway completed the effacement. Thus, early authorities sought to close off opportunities for the public memorialization of black lives.1

Yet Benjamin Wythe and other free black residents had found a way to lay claim to their place in the city. In 1815, after years of protest over the conditions at the [End Page 40] Burial Ground for Negroes, dozens of these artisans, barbers, carters, seamstresses, boarding house keepers, and other workers pooled funds to create a "Burying Ground Society of the Free People of Color of the City of Richmond." The group succeeded in purchasing a lot just north of town on Academy Hill for this purpose, to be known as the "Phoenix Burying Ground." Wythe's gravestone for his brother is the oldest surviving stone in the yard. As such, it is the earliest in situ African American artifact in the region, and perhaps the earliest surviving grave marker erected by a person of African ancestry in Virginia.2

The marker's lengthy inscription underscores its claims for monumentality and currency. Literacy itself was a dangerous quality, after all. The marker appeared during the lifetimes of those who remembered the failed rebellion in 1800, when the enslaved and literate blacksmith Gabriel forged a coalition of slaves, free blacks, and a few abolition-minded whites aiming to overturn the political order amid the language of liberty. In the crackdown that followed, free blacks saw the erosion of their tenuous rights—they were required to register with local officials and carry freedom papers; their testimony was inadmissible against white persons in court; and they were barred from attending night meetings, gambling, or riding in carriages unless as servants. Yet the pursuit of literacy remained, even after the clerk Christopher McPherson was run out of town following his attempt to open a school...


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