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Area historical society works to identify graves of people enslaved at Pen Park

Just 800 feet away from the Meadowcreek Golf Course clubhouse lies an undisrupted square of land marked off with a low rope fence. Beneath the grass, the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society and the city of Charlottesville believe there are at least 43 and potentially as many as 50 unmarked graves of enslaved laborers.

The graves are adjacent to a cemetery belonging to the Gilmer family, which owned a tobacco plantation on the land where the city-owned Pen Park is today. While the land is known now for its golf course and tennis courts, Tom Chapman, executive director of the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society, says the park’s 280 acres tell a lot about local history.

“There’s a lot of history right here. In one spot, you can tell a very interesting story about the history of Charlottesville from 1760 up through the present,” Chapman said. “African American history has been right here below our feet but no one’s really paid attention to it.”

Earlier this month, the City Council allocated $2,500 to help the historical society perform the necessary research to determine the identities of the people interred outside the cemetery and to identify living descendants.

Chapman said the Gilmer family first took ownership of the land in 1760. George Gilmer, a Scottish immigrant, came to Williamsburg in the 1740s and later purchased the property in Albemarle County. The family ran the plantation until around 1812 and their holdings stretched across 4,000 acres and included land worked by enslaved people, according to an 1897 book about the family.

The Cravens owned the land from 1819 to the mid-1800s and the Hotopps lived on a smaller portion of the property from 1866 to the early 1900s.

The grave of Gilmer, Thomas Jefferson’s friend and personal physician, is the oldest at the property, with his burial occurring in 1795. At least 37 members of the Gilmer, Craven and Hotopp families are buried within the three fenced family plots.

Chapman said that according to records, he believes the Gilmers and Cravens enslaved approximately 50 people. But they were not buried within the cemetery walls, and wouldn’t be discovered for more than 100 years.

“By the 1970s, this cemetery was basically in ruins,” Chapman said.

Some historians from the University of Virginia and other community members decided to restore the family plots for the 1976 Bicentennial. It was then that they noticed depressions in the ground outside the cemetery fence that could indicate graves.

In December 2019, the City Council approved $9,319 in funding for an archaeological investigation to determine the presence of human graves in the area.

The city contracted Rivanna Archeological Services, which, on July 15, 2020, coordinated with NAEVA Geophysics Inc. to conduct an examination of the site using ground-penetrating radar.

Evaluation of the GPR data suggests the likelihood of 43 unmarked and unrecorded graves outside the walls of the three family plots, roughly in three rows and primarily to the east, behind the family plots.

The majority lie outside the Gilmer and Craven sections. Evidence suggests these graves are most likely those of individuals enslaved at the site. There are at least four apparent graves directly outside the Hotopp section, possibly representing the graves of slaves or other people who lived on the property and were employed by the family.

Three apparent graves are not within the cluster immediately east of the family plots cluster and are therefore difficult to interpret — one at the northeast corner of the Gilmer plot and two located several yards south of the Hotopp plot.

In November, following completion of that work, staff reported this information to the City Council, including the evidence suggesting the majority, if not all, of the graves are of enslaved laborers.

Chapman said he believes there could be even more people buried there.

“Talking to the members of the [Albemarle County] Historic Preservation Committee and the [city] Historic Resource Committee, we’re just trying to determine how do we find individuals that possibly could relate to these people who are here,” he said.

Chapman said it’s very likely the Gilmer family bought newly arrived enslaved people from Africa in Williamsburg and brought them to the Piedmont region. The people buried outside the cemetery are likely to be first or second generation members of families enslaved in the region, and some of the first residents of Charlottesville and Albemarle County.

“You’re looking at individuals that probably predate most of the white settlers in Virginia … you’re looking at some of the first families of Albemarle County and Charlottesville that are buried here. They just so happened to be on the wrong side of the color line and on the wrong side of the wall,” Chapman said.

The main goal of the historical society now is to learn more about the people in the unmarked graves and find their living descendants. Chapman said they have identified at least three likely local descendants. The society is keeping the identities of these people confidential until they have more information.

Chapman said it’s unlikely that anyone would be able to identify exact individuals and their specific gravesite. However, he is optimistic that through historical records and documents, the historical society will be able to identify the people who were buried there.

He said there’s archaeological indications the burial ground was not cared for after the Civil War, but there is also potential that a freed Black person was tending to the area prior to then. The historians want to see if they can confirm this.

“I think we could easily come up with a compilation of names that would be representative of the people who are buried here … and try to find a way to memorialize and to make sure this area’s preserved and doesn’t have irrigation lines run through it or whatever else the golf course wants to do,” Chapman said.

Chapman said the Library of Virginia’s large database of records of enslaved laborers in Virginia might provide some clues about who is buried outside the cemetery.

Chapman said he is inspired by the work of the Historic Resource Committee in recontextualizing the slave auction site in Court Square in downtown Charlottesville.

The committee identified and is working with a group of descendants of people enslaved in the Charlottesville and Albemarle County area to determine an appropriate marker and other contextualization for the site. Chapman thinks there is potential overlap between descendants working on the slave auction site project and descendants of people buried in Pen Park.

“I find it very likely that there’s also going to be some kind of familial connection to people who were here,” he said.

Chapman isn’t sure what, if anything, should go in the burial ground in terms of a marker. He wants to talk to descendants about what they think.

“I don’t know what the outcome looks like. My interest is really the community connection,” he said.

Chapman previously worked at James Madison’s Montpelier, and has looked to the work of his colleagues who collaborated with descendants of people enslaved by Madison to create a tour and exhibit that accurately depicts and contextualizes the experience of enslaved laborers.

Part of the city funding will go toward an article written by Madison Wilson, a historic preservation graduate student at UVa and intern with the historical society who has been working on the project. The article will be published in the historical society’s magazine, and Chapman hopes it will help get the word out, especially to possible descendants.

Chapman wants people to understand how important it is for this historical work to be done so Black people who are descendants of slaves can have a better understanding of their ancestry and history.

“People ask me, why is it so important to understand African American genealogy. Well, I grew up with a family tree, three foot by five foot, sitting on my wall in my house of my grandma’s family of German descendants through Pennsylvania going all the way back to 1680. I can just go up to my family tree and say, here’s who I am, and I can connect going back 300 years,” Chapman said.

“You ask the same thing of an African American person in Charlottesville who knows their family goes back to 1800 or 1700 and they have nothing on their wall that shows that. They don’t have that ability. What we’re trying to do with this is to give that opportunity to tell that story. And I think it’s a very important story.”


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