Uncovering the stories within Fluvanna’s historically Black cemeteries

By Heather Michon

The Fluvanna County Historical Society is embarking on a mission to uncover the lost stories laying within two historically Black cemeteries in the southeastern part of the county.

Oak Hill Cemetery in West Bottom and Free Hill Cemetery in Columbia both date back perhaps decades before the Civil War and may be the final resting places for both enslaved workers and free people of color.

It’s a project FCHS Executive Director Tricia Johnson said she has been “ruminating over” for several years, but the scope of the work, along with the need to make sure it was done “in the most collaborative, inclusive way possible,” prevented her from making the project a reality.

Then, last fall, the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation announced a grant opportunity that “seemed to be a perfect match for these projects — and apparently, CACF agreed,” Johnson said.

Oak Hill cemetery. A very unusual slave grave marker. Photo by Tricia Johnson.

This funding allowed the Historical Society to hire Charlottesville-based Rivanna Archaeology to survey both cemeteries, including unmarked graves. Work began last week, with dozens of small pink flags now dotting Oak Hill Cemetery to mark potential burials. Fieldwork will take a couple of weeks, and will eventually result in detailed maps of both cemeteries.

But that’s just the start of the project. Working with the area nonprofit One Shared Story, local churches, and community volunteers, the society hopes to learn as much as possible about who is buried in these cemeteries and the lives they lived.

West Bottom Church has owned Oak Hill Cemetery since 1959, and Free Hill Cemetery is now part of the Columbia Baptist Church. Records of burials at Oak Hill were lost in a fire years ago, and records from Free Hill are limited, but other archival sources could help fill in some of the gaps.

Oral history will also play a large role in the study. Once the pandemic loosens its grip, Johnson hopes to hold local history gatherings and meet with elders and family historians to document their stories on video.

The society will also offer to scan old family photographs and papers, “immediately returning the originals and providing digital copies to participants in order to safeguard their family trees,” and keeping copies at the churches and at the historical society for future researchers.

Free Hill cemetery. An obelisk missing its brass plaque

“We will also help community members with their own family genealogies, and by doing so will end up creating sort of a ‘genealogy of the community,’ as well,” said Johnson. “There were geographically and demographically small spaces, and many of the people who lived there had interconnected family trees.”

The project may also help solve some of the mysteries behind the community of Free Hill in Columbia.

Oral tradition indicates Free Hill Cemetery was established as part of a community of free people of color in Columbia. This community began when David Ross emancipated some of his slaves in the late 18th or early 19th centuries and gave them land to live on.

Johnson said there were few engraved monuments at Free Hill Cemetery, “but I confess to being a bit giddy when Nick Bob-Harper of Rivanna Archaeology pointed out that there was an engraving on a stone that I had through was blank.”

Free Hill cemetery. Close up of almost illegible grave marker.

They were able to make out the date of death as 1839 and the deceased as Jacob Holmes, son of James and Martha Holmes. James Holmes was on the 1801 census as a free person of color. This means “we have tangible, physical proof — carved in stone — that this cemetery was indeed the burial ground of free people of color in Columbia.”

Ultimately, “the goal is to come to a better understanding of both communities, to document and preserve locally held history, and to give local residents the opportunity to gain a fuller understanding of the lives of their ancestors,” Johnson said.

If you have information on Oak Hill or Free Hill cemeteries or would like to get involved with the project, please contact Tricia Johnson at coldhollowfarm@yahoo.com

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