Volunteers turn out to restore two Black cemeteries

Contributed by Tricia Johnson

Columbia Baptist Church Pastor Bruce Boling welcomes volunteers to Free Hill Cemetery. Photos by Melissa Hill

Nearly 100 volunteers engaged in hands-on restoration work at two historic Black cemeteries in Fluvanna County over the course of two Saturdays: Free Hill Cemetery in Columbia on March 19, and Oak Hill Cemetery in West Bottom on March 26. Each of these historic Black cemeteries has been the subject of study and restoration efforts in the past two years, led by community members at Columbia Baptist Church and West Bottom Baptist Church and the Fluvanna Historical Society.

After receiving the completed report of an archaeological study that located unmarked burials at Free Hill Cemetery, Columbia community residents, many of whom are descendants of those buried there, have decided to pursue further archaeological options. That work necessitates a thorough clean-up of the cemetery ahead of the possible future use of ground-penetrating radar in test locations to see if that technology can be used to identify additional graves. 

Free Hill Cemetery was likely established in 1805 when wealthy Scottish immigrant and entrepreneur David Ross, founder of the town of Columbia, donated land to the community for use as the site of a church and school. Historical narrative relates that that site was also the burial ground for residents of Free Hill – a remarkable community of free people of color who lived and worked in Columbia. 

Oak Hill Cemetery likely began as a cemetery for people enslaved at Glenarvon and Cleveland plantations and was noted in letters and deeds as being “in use” soon after the Civil War, placing it at the heart of the post-Emancipation free town of West Bottom.  Community members are both working to restore the grounds and to consider the best path forward to secure space for future burials in the historic site.  

Pastor Bruce Boling was happy that the congregation of Columbia Baptist Church worked hard to host the cleanup event at Free Hill, and grateful for the volunteers from outside of the community, too. “It shows there are folks who care about us who don’t live in the community, and it also speaks to the rich history of this place when you have folks from outside the area come in and spend a day of their free time and do this kind of work,” he said.  At Oak Hill Cemetery, many people with deep roots in the community were there volunteering as a way to honor their ancestors. Pastor Walter Barrett of West Bottom Baptist Church said his heart was “filled with joy” as he watched people of all age groups there volunteering. “It is important to me that we acknowledge and recognize the history of so many that have been buried at Oak Hill Cemetery. Each of our lives rests firmly on the foundation of our ancestors’ sacrifice,” he said, “and restoring this sacred place is one way to honor them.”

 The Fluvanna Historical Society credits generous grant funding from the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation and Virginia Humanities with enabling the society to work in collaboration with the communities of West Bottom and Columbia in documenting their historic cemeteries.  Email FluvannaHistory@gmail.com for more information about upcoming work at these historic sites.

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