An obscure, almost hidden Charlottesville landmark was rededicated Sunday, bringing dozens of community members and visitors from around the country to a secluded graveyard that has become the first big step of a potential movement for the city.
Following four decades of public ownership, sustained activism and recent events that have brought the historical narrative of Charlottesville’s African-American community back into the spotlight, the more than century old cemetery now has a marker that recognizes its legacy in local history.
Located behind Oakwood Cemetery, the Daughters of Zion Cemetery has been neglected and is slowly falling into a state of obscurity, historical preservation advocates have said. On Sunday, however, there were signs that their efforts may have changed the cemetery’s course.
Community leaders and organizers and descendants of the cemetery’s inhabitants have worked to rehabilitate the site for future generations to remember those buried there and to promote the history of post-Civil War and early 20th-century Charlottesville.
“The success of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery to date serves as a model for how historic assets like these can be recognized, commemorated and preserved,” said Justin Sarafin, director of preservation initiatives for Preservation Virginia.
Earlier this year, Preservation Virginia included the cemetery in an annual list of most endangered historic places in the state. Although that gloomy title suggests the site is in imminent danger, Sarafin — who also serves on the city’s Board of Architectural Review — and Preservation Virginia recognized the city’s decision to allocate $80,000 to fix up the site.
The money is expected to help improve the site and resolve several issues, such as damaged gravestones, soil erosion and poor maintenance. Additionally, the money may be used to try to identify the half of the approximately 300 people buried there who are not identified at this time.
The public allocation and the decision to hold the rededication ceremony might not have happened were it not for several factors.
Compounding common concerns regarding the preservation of historical sites and assets in the city, a racial element exists in this case, as the segregated cemetery was founded by a historic, female-run mutual aid society known as the Daughters of Zion.
Last year, the Preservers of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery organized themselves in order to effectively advocate for assistance and find partners and families to restore the site and help identify many of those buried there.
Members of the new organization said they were inspired to form the group after the city’s Dialogue on Race held a conference last year to share new information and literature about the site, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2010.
“The Preservers … are our modern-day Daughters of Zion Society,” said Pete Armetta, of the Ridge Street Neighborhood Association. “Just like those ladies in the 1870s, they look to directly serve this community and pay homage.”
During Sunday’s rededication, both Armetta and Mayor Mike Signer alluded to the political lens in which the restoration effort can be viewed.
While Armetta mentioned ongoing development south of the city, near the cemetery, Signer spoke about how a movement to remove the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and other public Confederate monuments had influenced the City Council to broadly address how history and race is reflected in public sites.
Earlier this month, the council passed a resolution to form a blue ribbon commission that, in addition to creating a report on the Confederate monuments, will explore how the city can highlight other aspects of its history. The Daughters of Zion Cemetery is explicitly mentioned in the resolution.
“I think it was perfect timing that this cause that so many people labored at for so long came about during this particular time,” Signer said. “I think it’s remarkable. I’m so proud to be standing here and proud of the overflowing show of support for this effort. We’re all honored.”
Aside from the implications for local politics, the effort likely will touch many families and individuals on a more personal level.
Initially relocated to CitySpace due to forecasted rain Sunday afternoon, the ceremony moved to the cemetery as Preservers, relatives and members of the public were able to witness the unveiling of the marker.
About a dozen people — including some who traveled from as far away as Alabama and New Jersey — shouted the names of their ancestors who are buried there.
Moments after the unveiling of the bronze marker that was designed by the city’s Historic Resources Committee, Maxine Holland, of the Preservers, and Shelley Sass, a partner in the restoration project, appealed for continued assistance and asked that the community not forget the Daughters of Zion Cemetery.
“Each marker, gravestone, monument or fence placed in this cemetery represents a story,” Sass said. “If the story is not repeated or read, the story begins to fade. These people may be gone, but they need not be forgotten.”
“We really need you to make sure this doesn’t stop,” Holland said. “We got to keep the momentum up.”