African American Cemeteries Forum
Watching over history
Oliver Tate has been tending the tombstones at Staunton's Fairview Cemetery for 16 years. A chipper 84-year-old, Tate mows the grass, digs the graves and helps others find long lost relatives — all as a volunteer. Through his and others' diligence, hundreds of cemeteries in Augusta County, Staunton and Waynesboro are havens of rest, as well as living museums for research and learning.
My mother, father, uncle and cousins and a whole lot of friends are buried there. It's like home to me," Tate said of Fairview, Staunton's largest black cemetery. His father, the Rev. Godfrey Tate, was born in Staunton in the late 1800s.
"Our mission is to research the history and preserve it," said Dixon. She, like Tate, comes from a long line of Stauntonians. "My mother went out to Thornrose and she announced, 'I bought five plots — first come, first serve.' Two are currently occupied."
Thornrose goes back to1849. It replaced the already 100-year-old graveyard at Trinity Episcopal Church when it became full.
While the city was expanding, many coffins were dug up and their residents moved 'to the outskirts of town,' to Thornrose. T. J. Collins, Staunton's premier architect, was commissioned to design both functional and ornamental structures for the new cemetery, whose first recorded burial was that of a slave in 1853.
"We get visitors from all over," said Larry Campbell, Thornrose's superintendent. "Probably the most visited grave is that of Jedediah Hotchkiss, Stonewall Jackson's topographer, whose home was in Staunton."
Slaves and free blacks
"We try to remember the patriotic sentiment, how they lived and were educated," she said. At Trinity Lutheran flags remembering each war are hung on Memorial Day at each soldier's grave site. A plaque also commemorates each veteran.
"It's a way of honoring the veterans for what they did and keeping them in our memory," said Lewis Coiner of Trinity Lutheran, a World War II veteran and descendant of one of the four families who founded the church in 1794.
Betty Jo Campbell, a member of the local chapter of United Daughters of the Confederacy, visits the graves and attends a yearly ceremony in honor of the more than 1,500 Confederate soldiers buried at Thornrose. A war memorial and two cannons that were used in the war add to the rite. Both Thornrose and Riverview Cemetery in Waynesboro have monuments in honor of Confederate soldiers.
"We use Thornrose as a teaching tool," Campbell, a native of Mount Solon explained. "We're always interested in young people learning about the war."
Visitors can view the graves of 753 Union soldiers at the Staunton National Cemetery, established in 1867.
"He was considered a Southern gentleman," Burress said. Much of what Burress knows of his grandfather comes from the articles the elder Burress wrote in the Stuart Hall records about his experiences growing up. Tom Burress instilled a love of learning in his children and grandchildren. Most of Nathaniel Burress' nine siblings received advanced degrees.
"I've pointed them (the gravestones) out to family members," Burress said. The stones he pointed out belong to Tom Burress and other family members, including Nathaniel's parents, who were born in the late 1800s and were married for 68 years.
"If you're doing genealogical research, it's great to go back to the cemetery," Zakaib said.
Fire and disease
Ida Virginia Carlislie is remembered at Fishersville United Methodist Cemetery. Her body was interred in 1881, soon after giving birth. At the same location, Clora Lawhorn's husband and four children are buried, three passed on before they reached 9-years-old, another died at 26.
Tools of learning
"During the 19th century people were obsessed with symbolism," said Sergei Troubetzkoy, Staunton's tourism development coordinator. "The designs of monuments have their own meaning. An obelisk is the symbol of death and rebirth."
Flowers, trees, columns and hands, as well as the direction tombstones face also have different meanings.
At the Temple House of Israel's late 19th century cemetery in Staunton, the custom of placing stones on the grave remains.
"Stones go back to pre-history," said Rabbi Joe Blair of the Temple. He said that stones were placed on the grave to keep animals away as well as to mark the location. It is the Jewish custom to leave a stone on a tombstone to keep alive the memory of the deceased.
James Taylor of Waynesboro has compiled an extensive list of those buried at the city's cemeteries. By comparing the burial log with the obituary he has come up with new data that he continues to update at the Waynesboro Public Library.
"I only spend about 12 hours a day doing this," he said while chuckling.
"Families would picnic in the cemetery on a Sunday afternoon. They predate parks," Troubetzkoy said. "I would love to see the cemetery used in this way again."
Troubetzkoy periodically gives tours of Thornrose and Trinity, calling Thornrose one of Virginia's most beautiful cemeteries.
People like Tate and Troubetzkoy spread good will over the interred as they pick weeds and memorize names.
"We've been doing our work to make it beautiful," Tate said. "I'm very well pleased with Fairview Cemetery."
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