Central Va. Museum Restores Slave Cemetery

April 26, 2010

In a field beside Avoca Museum, dozens of neatly-shaped rocks serve as gravestones for slaves believed to be buried there.

The cemetery near the Staunton River is surrounded by trees; for years it was hidden by overgrown grass and shrubs.

"It was totally forgotten about," said Frank Murray, the museum's director.

After receiving a tip of its existence from a town resident, the museum has spent nearly seven years studying and restoring the site. Lynn Rainville, a Sweet Briar College professor, said she and a few of her students verified it as a slave cemetery in 2004.

Murray also said further research at Campbell County's courthouse and Avoca files confirmed the finding. Avoca was originally established in the 1750s as the residence of Col. Charles Lynch; the land eventually was passed down to Mary Fauntleroy, the niece of Charles Henry Lynch.

The late Pete Fauntleroy, whose ancestors owned the land, confirmed the existence of the cemetery, Murray said. He heard of it through his father, who was born in 1879 and said it hadn't been used in his lifetime, Murray said.

"Through oral history, the first person buried there was a Native American who drowned in the Staunton River," Murray said. "After that, it became a slave cemetery."

He said resurrecting its memory serves a threefold purpose of introducing it to the public, recognizing the contributions slaves made to the development of the area, and adding to the ongoing research of Avoca's history.

The restoration cost about $5,000, with the help of volunteer labor. Murray is hopeful the cemetery will attract people of all races and backgrounds for educational purposes, he said.

Murray said slavery is "a very sensitive issue, obviously." Earlier this month, controversy surrounded Gov. Bob McDonnell when he declared April as Confederate History Month but initially omitted slavery in his proclamation.

McDonnell later apologized and amended the proclamation to include a paragraph that called slavery "an evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given and inalienable rights."

Murray said the cemetery's restoration is not a glorification of slavery.

"We are providing dignity that was not afforded to them during their lifetime," he said. "We are restoring their final resting place."

He said local residents, Sons of Confederate Veterans and Sons of Union Veterans are help to erect a split-rail fence and signage at the cemetery.

"It's almost like a healing," Murray said. "Slavery was wrong; this is a way of saying it's wrong ... it's really a positive thing having everyone involved in the process."

Rainville, who has studied three-dozen slave cemeteries in central Virginia, said it is common to find slave cemeteries located on agricultural land. Those spots are usually unproductive, she said, and sometimes stones serving as grave markers are displaced.

"The stones had been moved, but they were clearly gravestones because they were shaped by hands," Rainville said of Avoca's cemetery.

It's no surprise that words weren't inscribed on the markers, she said, referring to a state law passed in 1831 that made it illegal for slaves to read or write.

"To put words on their gravestone would be an advertisement of breaking the law," she said. "It would have been somewhat dangerous."

Murray said the museum hopes to hear from people with ancestors who once worked at Avoca or nearby Otterbourne as slaves or free workers for further research.

"We want their family history to be part of this history," Murray said. "We just need to know about it."

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