Restoring a Long-Forgotten Cemetery

Jun 2, 2016

A historic, but neglected, cemetery in Charlottesville is forgotten no more. As WMRA’s Sefe Emokpae reports, an effort to restore the Daughters of Zion Cemetery is finally gaining momentum.

On Sunday, dozens of people gathered at a newly-erected sign marking the long-forgotten site of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery. A ceremony to mark the cemetery’s rededication was hosted by the group who pushed to see it happen. Maxine Holland is one of three members of the Preservers of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery.

MAXINE HOLLAND: We are three African-American women who came to organize ourselves to help move Daughters of Zion Cemetery from a state of neglect, abandonment and obscurity and put it in a place where it would illuminate their experiences here on earth.

As Holland explains, the Daughters of Zion was a group of women who got together and purchased a little more than two acres of land to make sure their loved ones had a place to be buried back in 1873. But as time passed by, the historically African-American gravesite was neglected to the point of complete deterioration. The cemetery was included on Preservation Virginia’s annual list of most endangered historic sites in the Commonwealth.

HOLLAND: Family members died off and when you don't have people left that are knowledgeable of the cemetery or knowledgeable of the history, it would just go unnoticed. And that's what happened.

But now, an ironic breath of life for the land that’s specifically designated for the dead. With the help of $80,000 allocated by the City of Charlottesville, a project has been launched to restore the cemetery. Alexander Ikefuna is Director of Neighborhood Development Services.

ALEXANDER IKEFUNA: Right now we're evaluating all the needs in the cemetery. What needs to be improved, how much it needs to cost. So we're going through that right now so we're hoping that in the next two or three months we start seeing some improvement.

More than 300 people are believed to be buried at the cemetery of which just more than half are identified. Holland says along with restoring the headstones, identifying who is buried will be another vital step.

HOLLAND: The people buried there, those that we have identified, these people contributed to the overall growth and development of Charlottesville. They were entrepreneurs, they owned their homes and contributed to the overall growth and development of Charlottesville.

Some family members of those people attended the rededication ceremony, including Joseph Altomirando who traveled from Montgomery, Alabama to support two of his great grandfathers buried at the Daughters of Zion Cemetery.

JOSEPH ALTAMIRANDO: This is a great moment. I grew up knowing of my family in Charlottesville but never really had a chance to experience the life here. It's just great to come down here and see the recognition being done to the black cemetery that had been forgotten for a while but now a new life is coming to it to be recognized as a historical landmark of Charlottesville. This is a chance for Charlottesville to recognize the black history of Charlottesville and try to bring it to the forefront. I think it's beautiful.

HOLLAND: We want to make sure that it's not just talk. That this is going to be done. It is necessary for this cemetery to be restored. It is almost impossible to think that it will get back to the way it was originally in the 1800s but we definitely would like to see it restored, preserved and made a part of the Charlottesville conversation.

The Daughters of Zion Cemetery was listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places in 2010.