February 2018 , Charlottesville VA – I came here for a panel on Dr. King’s ill-fated Poor Peoples Campaign of 1968, 50 years past and now aiming to be re-launched.
I did my part in the event (having written a book about the 1968 campaign); but I want to admit here that my mind frequently wandered, hankering to head downtown to visit some of Charlottesville’s new & newly-more historic sites while I was nearby.
Two in particular: the shrouded statue of Robert E. Lee, awaiting its fate, and a few blocks away the graffiti wall on the stretch of 4th Street now rechristened “Heather Heyer Way.”
Late that rainy afternoon, the panel finished, and the chance came. My activist photographer friend Laura from Toronto, also a panelist, felt a similar urge, and soon we were in “Emancipation (neé Lee) Park” clicking away.
The statue’s future is as shrouded as its visage: the city says “Move it!” But the state says, “No!” Perhaps a judge will decide.
And the struggle continues more concretely: several locals told us that the shroud has repeatedly been removed under cover of darkness, leaving some unknown persons’ icon on horseback once more boldly facing the rising sun. These “strippers” remain uncaught, the shroud is quickly remounted; and the cycle goes on.
We had no time to keep vigil to see the next unveiling; daylight was fading, and we wanted to pay respects at the touching Heather Heyer memorial, which feels already timeless though it is entirely of chalk drawn on a brick wall.
These two sites were impressive enough, but another, unknown to us then, was waiting.
Our gracious hostess Helena, an activist publisher, told us about it: a Confederate cemetery near her house, owned by the University of Virginia.
When we got there a grey morning rain was falling. Helena explained that the cemetery was originally for UVA faculty, and all around us were headstones commemorating the resting places of professors of this & scholars of that.
Then during the Civil War, a sizable chunk of it had been requisitioned by the Confederate army, which set up a field hospital nearby. In its beds — as was true in most such facilities on both sides — disease killed as many or more as actual combat. So the ground here was essentially a mass soldiers’ grave; there were records of the occupants, but their actual locations were hazy.
Here too was the city’s civil war memorial which will likely be left alone, to mark and celebrate the Confederate Dead. (That by the way is fine by me; the bravado of its base inscription rang with an emptiness that ought to be obvious to all but the diminishing ranks of the hard core.)
Still, there were wrinkles even here: Helena pointed out bright, new-looking headstones, dating burials from 1862 to 1865. They not only looked new, but were in fact so, placed by order of the state government, which was funding the refurbishment of such Confederate cemeteries statewide. Further, these new markers do not stand where the soldiers they named yet lie; but never mind.
Helena then beckoned us through an opening in the low wall, into what seemed an empty field next to the rows of scholars and fighters.
This plot had once been selected to be added to the cemetery (since UVA professors keep stubbornly falling short of immortality, glorious or in). But when archaeologists tested the ground, they discovered that it too was full of graves, unmarked, and previously unknown.
Can you guess where we’re going with this?
This unmarked and long-forgotten additional cemetery contains the remains of 67 persons of color, many but maybe not all enslaved, who worked for (& likely were owned by) UVA.
Once their presence was verified, the University reacted, with the markers shown here. Note that those listed on the sign Helena is pausing to read (shown below), may include some of those resting here, but that is no more than somewhat educated guesswork, as incomplete as most of the names it records.
We took more pictures, and then went on to join meeting for worship with Charlottesville Quakers. Then I headed home, leaving behind the images of funerary splendor for deceased academics, nameless unmarked grass for their onetime chattels, and continued mawkish attention by the state to those who died to keep them subject to such enforced forgetting.
No wonder Lee’s shroud keeps coming off. But at least, Heather’s graffiti is still there.