Historic Black cemetery restored

Forty volunteers remove decades of debris

By Tricia Johnson

“This is my church, this is my home, and this graveyard will be my resting place.” Melbra Armstrong has lived all her life in the community of West Bottom and has childhood memories of Oak Hill Cemetery. “When I was little on Memorial Day every year everybody got together and came down and cleaned around the graveyard,” she explained. “My grandmother would come over to this side,” she said, gesturing towards the older part of the cemetery, “because she had two children buried over here. I don’t know where the graves are now because it has grown up so,” she lamented.

Armstrong saw the efforts as a new beginning and was happy to see people from outside of the West Bottom community there to help, working alongside members of West Bottom Baptist Church.  “I am happy – I am meeting new people that don’t have anything to do with this area, but they are willing to help; they are giving up their Saturday to do this and together we have made a big difference here today. Now that we are starting,” she added, “we can come back and keep it up.”

More than forty volunteers helped remove decades of debris from the cemetery in West Bottom on Saturday, Nov. 13. The clean-up efforts, a collaboration between the community and the Fluvanna Historical Society, are part of a developing plan to study and to restore the historically significant site – one of three such ongoing projects in the county.  A handful of men used chainsaws to cut down scrub growth and small trees from the wooded area, while other volunteers, armed with rakes and pruners, used gloved hands to carry branches to a nearby wood-chipper.  By the time the sun began to drop towards the horizon and the air chilled, what had been that morning a scrubby, overgrown patch of woods was described by one volunteer as “serene.”

“I think it is important to remember and acknowledge all of our past,” said Fluvanna County Commonwealth Attorney Jeff Haislip, as he took a break from hauling brush to the chipper. Haislip noted that the history of the center part of the county is often studied, but that smaller communities in outlying parts of the county merit attention, too. Of the cemetery itself, he remarked that “part of it is current and well-kept, but the older part is being taken over by forest, and it is important to take that back, to find out what is back there, and to experience and celebrate that history, too.” Haislip has fond boyhood memories of West Bottom, describing it as a “vibrant” community where he used to play ball with friends.

West Bottom resident Nadine Aleta Armstrong has recently rediscovered a passion for historical and genealogical research, and has, along with Melissa Hill, been leading the work to identify as many of those at rest here as possible. To date, the pair has found names of more than 100 people buried in unmarked graves at Oak Hill Cemetery. “I was born and raised here for the most part and I have a lot of ancestors buried here, and I think it is important that they are known,” she said. “Oak Hill has been here for a long time and most of the people buried here lived in this community all their lives.  To know that their names will be remembered – that they will not be forgotten – is a wonderful thing.”

Armstrong was very pleased with the number of volunteers, and especially with the young people there to help with the clean-up.  “It is very impressive to me that the people who have no ties showed up.  Out of the goodness of their hearts, they showed up and the ones that have connections showed up – sometimes you are hoping and praying you will have some representation from your people and today we did,” she said with a smile.

Her ancestors, and all who lie at rest at Oak Hill, were on her mind all day, she said. “If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be here today,” she said. “What they went through has put us where we are – we didn’t have to face or experience slavery – they went through it so we wouldn’t have to experience it.” Armstrong gestured to the far corner of the cemetery, where the oldest burials likely lie, and a towering grandfather oak tree that marks the boundary. “I am admiring that one big oak tree – to me it represents the cemetery, because it has been there a number of years and those people buried there have been there a long time, too,” she said. “Before today people wouldn’t have known there was a cemetery here…now,” she added, nodding with satisfaction, “now they will know.”

Also there volunteering during the clean-up process were Nick Bon-Harper and Susan Palazzo of Rivanna Archaeological Services (RAS.)  The firm surveyed the cemetery in February and March of this year, marking individual burials with red flags and creating a map of the space with each burial indicated, as part of a collaborative project between the community of West Bottom and the Fluvanna Historical Society.  Historical research was then done, and their work has been presented to the community for review. This will culminate in a comprehensive report including the results of historical research and the maps and field observations from the site.

Bon-Harper described the cemetery as “a unique and interesting site,” and noted that many similar spaces have been lost already, and that “whenever there is a chance to thoroughly document a cemetery like this and get the research done it should be done.”  Impressed by the numbers of volunteers on hand, he added, “Seeing how many people have come out here today – it is remarkable what level of interest it generates, and that has to in turn generate a better sense of community.” He described the work of restoring the cemetery as “unifying,” and noted the importance of “being able to reinforce community bonds through places like this where there is a common connection,” observing that many of those volunteering were descendants of people at rest in Oak Hill.

Melissa Hill, whose ancestors were once enslaved on land where West Bottom is today, has strong family connections to the church, the community, and the cemetery itself.  She feels those connections powerfully. “It makes me proud, first,” she said.  “Not proud of the slavery they endured, but proud of my family – of who I come from,” she said with emotion. “I may not know my ancestors, but I know that they went through something so that I could stand here today and have the rights and freedoms that I have.” She added, “I wish that I could just say ‘thank you’ to generations of my grandfathers and my grandmothers, my aunts and uncles and cousins going back through the years – ‘thank you for paving the way for me.’  I try my best to live my life to make them proud– I try to make them proud, and I think I am.  I think I am.”

“The people who came out today showed that they really care, and they love people, not because they are Black or White, but just because they love people,” Hill said of the volunteers. She called it a “beautiful day,” and added, “They thought enough of us – they thought enough of my ancestors, they thought enough of the people who are buried here, enough of West Bottom – to come and to help, and I cannot say any more than I am grateful.” Hill was also happy to see so many members of West Bottom Baptist Church there volunteering. “It shows that the work we are doing here is not in vain,” she said of their engagement. Looking through the newly cleared woods along the slope where fieldstones mark anonymous graves, she added, “This is the way it should be – it should be peaceful, serene.  You can actually see through the trees now,” she gestured. “The way the light is coming in, and with the color of the leaves – it looks like a holy place, now, doesn’t it?”

In collaboration with the communities of West Bottom, Columbia, and Gravel Hill, the Fluvanna Historical Society is documenting three historic Black community cemeteries – Oak Hill, Free Hill, and Gravel Hill, respectively. Archaeological work is being done at all three sites and historical research is ongoing. This work is being funded by generous donations from the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation, from anonymous donors, from descendants of the Hannah and Wills Families, and by Virginia Humanities through their SHARP Grant Awards – (Funding for these grants has been provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) as part of the American Rescue Plan (ARP) and the NEH Sustaining the Humanities through the American Rescue Plan (SHARP) initiative.)

 Contact the Fluvanna Historical Society at fluvannahistory@gmail.com to learn more about these efforts and to volunteer for future clean-up events.

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