Friday, April 15, 2011

Forgotten Slave Cemetary in Danville, Virginia

After work yesterday, I met up with my friends Boots, Momma Boots, Bear, Kim, and my husband, Stump for dinner and a few drinks. We ate platters of shrimp and fish and enjoyed margaritas and bahama mamas at Kickback Jack's in Danville, Virginia.   

While we were dining, Kim reminded us of an old slave cemetery that Stump had promised to show us. He had discovered it as a boy, playing outside with his friends. The graveyard was just behind his house. He and the other boys knew, even as children, that the unmarked rocks that were scattered throughout the property were the headstones of slaves. The stories from the "old folks" who lived in the area confirmed what they already knew to be true. This was a place of history, and Stump, Kim, and I were going to see this for ourselves.

We headed down Edgewood Drive, onto Dula Street, and then onto Still Street in Danville. The houses that lined the narrowing side roads had been there for many, many years, and had a history all to themselves. We pulled over in front of an empty lot between two homes. The lot was overgrown with ivy, thorns, and Virginia Creeper. Even from the road, you could see what appeared to be headstones in front of a hollowed out tree stump.

We walked toward the stones and as we drew closer we knew for certain that this could be nothing other than the graveyard of Danville slaves. The stones that sat erect in the cold, black dirt were obviously "placed". I felt a chill spread through me as I imagined the tears of sadness that were shed by the families of these slaves as they were laid in the ground. I imagined the sorrow on the tired, work-worn faces of family members as a simple rock, without even a name, was placed on the soil as a marker. I stood right where those family members stood to say their final goodbyes at least a hundred years ago. At this point, I began to think to myself, death is ultimately the liberation of the oppressed.

We found four of the graves that my husband had told us about immediately. He said that he remembers stones "everywhere". He even pointed out where a few that he remembered had been, only to find a small hole in the ground where the stone once laid. We decided to venture deeper into the wooded area, where he was convinced there would be many more.

The three of us split up and walked through the thorns and brush searching for stones. with no luck at all. It was apparent that someone had bought the land and had cut down trees, and had even started building a fence toward the back of the lot. I am also convinced that neighborhood children had moved some of the markers, not knowing their significance.

We headed back toward our vehicles, and I was taking a few more shots of the property with my camera when an elderly lady emerged from a small grayish house adjacent to the lot. She didn't look very happy as she approached us. "What are you doing?" she wanted to know.

"Taking pictures of the slave graves". I responded, and gave her a smile of sincerity.
"You are absolutely right", she chirped, "Most folks around here don't know it, but that's exactly what it is", she continued. "My momma grew up in that house", she said, as she gestured toward the small frame house from which she had just emerged. "Momma was ninety years old when she told me about the last slave that was buried in that cemetery. She was six when it happened. She said it was a child, a little girl. There's hundreds of graves in that lot, and they go all the way back". She gestured back out into the wooded area of the lot.
Stump, Kim, and I listened as she told about the neighbors that lived in those homes in the past, about horses that fell into open graves in the cemetery, and about the missing headstones. She told us one of the neighbors had somewhat cleared out the area where we found the four preserved graves, and concluded that someone else should clear part, and maybe someone else even clear out another part. "That's history", she said. And I have to agree with her.

I don't think very many people are left that are aware of this small historical landmark on the south side of Danville, Virginia. I don't know if any of the decendents of the slaves buried on Still Street are even around. I don't think that even if they are, they would ever know because none of the graves have so much as an initial to identify the person buried there. I don't know that the younger neighbors who are moving in as the older ones pass away will even care. I do know that I felt something for those people who rest in that cemetary, and that it has given me reason to stop and think, to mourn, and even to ponder the future of this small piece of seemingly insignificant land.

I would say this to the slaves that rest in that cemetery: Although your names were never marked on your grave, and even though you thought that no one would ever look back after you were gone, you are not yet forgotten. There are some of us who do care that your story lives. There are people like my husband, my friends, and even the neighbor who lives next to your grave, that want people to know that you were here, and don't want them to forget that. You still live on.


  1. Loved this post. I have been interested in the history of Danville for years. There is so much history here. People pass by these places and never notice or question. It is really sad that the generations are not taking notice or even being curious about the history that surrounds them. Thank you! --- Angel

  2. Thanks, Angel. I am going to try to post more things about Danville and the area. I have plans to visit the Southerlin Mansion (The Last Capitol of the Confederacy) tomorrow. I expect to post on that visit Monday. Check back!

  3. this is amazing my family was enslaved in Danville Virginia throughout slavery this is the closest i will come to them thank you guys

    1. Hi, Robert. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. That was five years ago that we went on that little adventure and I can still remember it so vividly. Being there was a spiritual experience like no other that I have ever felt. It saddens me that so many people forget or just don't have time to think about our history. It's nice to hear there are people like you who can appreciate our history and care about people whom you never knew. Family is inside us and we have a connection to our ancestors if we will be still enough to feel it.

  4. Really enjoyed your post Melissa..

    I've always been interested in history and things that most people my age (I'm 27) don't find important.

    I'd like to see the area and other historical spots in Danville. Thanks again for posting

  5. Really enjoyed your post Melissa..

    I've always been interested in history and things that most people my age (I'm 27) don't find important.

    I'd like to see the area and other historical spots in Danville. Thanks again for posting