Charlottesvillle to install temporary signs marking graves of enslaved at Pen Park

Whistling is fine, but it would be greatly appreciated if people did not walk on, roll over or play through their graves.

Charlottesville is looking at ways to ensure visitors to Pen Park and golfers at the Meadowcreek Golf Course don’t disrupt the unmarked graves of unidentified people, people who until recently were lost to history.

The city’s Historic Resources Committee decided Friday to install temporary signs at the site where the city and Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society believe there are at least 43 and as many as 50 unmarked graves of enslaved laborers.

Just steps away from the last homes in Pen Park is the public golf course. Both were once part a tobacco plantation operated for nearly a century by three different families who held slaves between 1786 and 1865.

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The necropolis is currently marked off by a low rope. The rope, however, is far too porous a barrier to repel flying golf balls or thwart people from walking into the graveyard or golf carts from rolling over the unmarked graves. That is leading the historic resources committee to draw up temporary signs to alert visitors to the final resting places.

”I’ve said to the golf course folks, you’ve got to keep golf carts off there. It’s like any other cemetery,” said Jeff Werner, Charlottesville’s historic preservation and design planner. “What can you do to keep golf carts off there?”

Enter the temporary signs.

“Within this area are unmarked graves of men, women and children enslaved at Pen Park plantation between 1786 and 1865,” the proposed signs say. “Please be respectful.”

The signs aren’t intended to be permanent or offer full interpretation of the site, as the city needs to do more research. However, the committee has been given the green light to start working on logistics to produce the temporary signs.

The wording decision made by the committee isn’t binding. They will be working with descendants of those buried in the park to finalize the phrasing, said Robert Watkins, assistant preservation and design planner.

Committee members John Edwin Mason and Jalane Schmidt suggested using the phrase “slave labor camp” as opposed to “plantation.”

“Historiography is always evolving, as are the terms that are used. There are some [historians] leaning more toward using that term [slave labor camps],” Schmidt said.

Mason said he prefers the term because too many people think of a plantation as a beautiful wedding venue.

Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society Executive Director Tom Chapman said that the current rope has led park maintenance staff avoiding the area and not maintain it, allowing debris to collect at the grave sites.

Even temporary signs could encourage a bit more reverence, Chapman suggested.

Plans for permanent markers are continuing as the committee and historical society work to identify the graves’ occupants and find their descendants. After reviewing historical records, Chapman believes two of the families that owned the plantation enslaved approximately 50 people but that the enslaved were not buried within the walls of the family cemetery.

The graves weren’t discovered for more than 100 years.

In December 2019,  City Council approved $9,319 in funding for an archaeological investigation to determine the presence of human graves in the area and ground-penetrating radar determined in 2020 the likelihood of 43 unmarked and unrecorded graves.

The graves are just outside the walls of the three family plots, roughly in three rows and primarily to the east, behind the family plots.

Staff told the City Council that evidence suggests the graves likely were journey’s end for enslaved laborers.

City Council allocated $2,500 in August 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. The Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society has identified some living descendants and is working to find more.

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