BROOKNEAL — On the northwest edge of Patrick Henry’s old tobacco plantation, nestled in the woods about a quarter mile from the site of the former Virginia governor’s mansion, sits a slave cemetery once largely lost to history.
Until recently, the plot of land was owned by a timber company and sat mostly idle on a sandy sloping hill, out of sight of the nearby plantation. But last summer the foundation that owns and operates the Patrick Henry National Memorial on Red Hill purchased the graveyard and the surrounding land.
Now, researchers and officials at Red Hill are working to tell the story of the family of the enslaved African-Americans who lived on the site and were buried together by connecting with their descendants.
“We’re not the ones who should dictate what is done down there and how it’s done,” Hope Marstin, the new CEO of Patrick Henry National Memorial, said. “Our community and descendants of people who are buried there need to tell us how they want it done. We want to get all of these people together, so together, we can figure out where to go forward.”
Marstin said that in the coming days the foundation plans to meet with the pastor of the nearby Springhill Baptist Church, whose congregation is, in part, made up of descendants of the slaves buried at Red Hill. The foundation hopes eventually to develop a new exhibit at the cemetery in an effort to fully share the story of slavery at Red Hill to the memorial’s about 10,000 annual visitors.
Last summer, Red Hill purchased the graveyard and the more than 70 acres that surround the cemetery from Weyerhaeuser Company, a real estate investment trust based in Seattle. According to Caitlin Pieper, the foundation’s director of education, the stretch of land was once also the site of the plantation’s slave quarters.
The graveyard that sits on the land, Pieper said, is one of the best preserved slave cemeteries in the country, largely thanks to its relatively secluded location.
The graveyard is dotted by periwinkle and yucca, a cactus-like plant associated with mourning and commonly found in Southern slave cemeteries. Near the center of the graveyard is a centuries-old pine with an odd, orb-like growth, which Pieper said formed around an old wreath that once hung on the tree.
The graves are easily recognizable by dozens of small, unengraved head and footstones and shallow depressions in the earth.
Researchers have identified 147 individual graves at the cemetery and are now working to find the sites of old cabins and gardens that are believed to have been located nearby. Brian Bates, a professor of anthropology at Longwood University, is heading the research effort.
Bates and Red Hill have, so far, only identified one person who was buried at the site: Matilda Panell, who died in 1923. Her grave is the only one to include an engraved headstone.
She is believed to be a descendant of Red Hill’s enslaved people and may be the last person buried in the cemetery.
Myra Trent, Red Hill’s community relations coordinator, said the foundation hopes to learn the names of the other enslaved people buried at the cemetery by connecting with local descendants, a potentially vast research effort .
“We have one name of one person on one grave,” she said. “Otherwise, we know no one.”