DIGGING INTO THE PAST: According to community lore, many as 300 souls, including enslaved people and their descendants, are buried at St. Mary of the Annunciation cemetery in Ladysmith. PHOTO COURTESY OF FACEBOOK

LADYSMITH, Va. (AP) – Anna Porter sat on a stump in the middle of a historic African American cemetery in Caroline County, wishing she knew more about those whose remains surrounded her.

Since childhood, she’s been a regular visitor to graveyards, intrigued by the lives and times of the people in her midst. The cemetery in the woods behind St. Mary of the Annunciation Catholic Church in Ladysmith holds even more fascination for Porter because it contains more questions than answers.

As many as 300 souls, including enslaved people and their descendants, are buried there, according to community lore. Porter, along with other members of a St. Mary’s committee, would like to find out as much as they can about those who lie in unmarked graves.

"This is a very sacred space and it should be memorialized for the people who lived here and toiled here and their descendants who are buried here," she said. "We as a church family feel it is important."

So do members of the Brown, Wright and Rock families whose ancestors fill the cemetery, as well as people who see the effort as a step toward healing some of the racial wrongs in this country.

Like Porter, the Rev. Tony Craddock, pastor of the nearby St. John’s Baptist Church, likes the way the project has brought people of different backgrounds together.

"I’m excited about the partnership of that Catholic church with this Baptist church," he said. "It’s so important that we preserve the history, not just for us but for generations to come."

He’s glad the St. Mary’s committee has reached out to descendants – many of his church members – for information and to give them a voice in what type of memorials or improvements to put at the graveyard. He envisions a place where people of all colors and faiths could contemplate where society has been, and where it’s going.

"These things are necessarily for healing," Craddock said.


The graveyard is known as the Oliver cemetery, named after the family who initially owned the plantation property. It lies in a clearing on a hillside with oak trees that provide ample shade but also allow rays of sun to filter through.

Periwinkle vines, a ground cover whose evergreen leaves symbolize eternal life, are creeping up the hill from the old wagon road, and Porter would be thrilled to see them throughout.

Periwinkle produces a beautiful bluishpurple bloom in early spring, Porter said, her eyes twinkling as she visualized the image in her mind’s eye.

For now, though, the cemetery is mostly unmarked graves with roughly chiseled pieces of fieldstone at the unnamed person’s head and feet. Only a handful of stones have inscriptions; two were done by the government for veterans, including Woodson Rock, who lost part of his arm during service in World War I.

The names of the enslaved believed to be buried in the center of the cemetery, wrapped in burlap and piled, one on top of another, may be "known only to God," Porter said.

That’s why the church committee has made it a goal to research as much as they can about those interred. The group, which is relying on donations and grants, not St. Mary’s funds, also hopes to restore, maintain and make the cemetery accessible to anyone in the community who wants to visit.

In Virginia, cemeteries are legal inholdings, which means they belong to the descendants, not to the property owner, Porter said.

"Our only obligation is to not deny descendants access to the cemetery. However, we have a moral obligation to do so much more," she said, noting the effort has produced results beyond the graveyard borders. "It is bringing communities together."


Laura Harris, 79, would like to be able to make the trek through the woods, should the committee raise enough money to put in a path accessible by older people.

She lives in a neat-as-a-pin home about a mile from St. Mary’s and remembers going with her father, Virgil Brown, to the cemetery each year on Decoration Day. That was May 30, before Memorial Day became the official holiday for people to decorate graves, both of their war dead and loved ones.

Virgil Brown and others cleared the cemetery of fallen branches, leaves or intruding weeds until the last person, Pearly Gayle, was buried there in 1984. Other descendants, including Cleveland Rock, the nephew of the WWI veteran, and Rose Morton, Harris’ daughter, carried on the tradition as long as they could.

"It wasn’t like a lost, forgotten cemetery or anything like that," Porter said. Much of the information about who’s buried where was passed along by word of mouth from one generation to the next. But as many of those who carried the knowledge have passed away themselves, Porter believes it’s vital to record information before it’s too late. She wants to talk to as many members of the Black community as possible. She’s already identified 32 people buried in the cemetery, which she believes includes all those from the 20th century.

Porter has spent many hours in the home of Harris, talking with the matriarch, her children and other relatives. Harris drew her a map of the graves she remembered, and Porter has researched court records to fill in some other branches in family trees.

In her own family, she can trace her roots back to Charlemagne, but says many people of European descent can do the same.

"It’s different to research Black enslaved people," Porter said.

Few public records include precise names of the enslaved, and the children of those in bondage didn’t necessarily know who their parents were. "Basically, Black people didn’t know their ancestry," Harris said.

For instance, her great-grandmother Nancy Brown was born into slavery. Harris has always known that. But she didn’t know until recently, when Porter started researching, that "Grandma Nancy" was 14 when she came to the Oliver plantation from King William County.

It’s presumed that she and her six siblings were able to stay with their mother, at least for part of their lives, as enslaved children usually did, Porter said.

"I hope so," Harris said quietly. "She was a very nice person. Everybody liked her, the white people and the Black people."


Nancy Brown was freed after the Civil War, then in 1890, the property owner deeded her 10 acres of land, presumably so she would stay close by and continue to work on the farm. Many Blacks headed to cities for jobs, Porter said.

That same tract of land was passed down to the oldest child in each family, and is where Harris lives. Her father and other old-timers talked about a funeral held in their front yard, under a tree, for a woman named Mary Brown. She was 19 when she died. Her twin, Martha Brown, only survived a couple days. The Rev. James Wright, founder of St. John’s Baptist Church, is believed to be interred there as well. Harris and many of her relatives are members of St. John’s and would love to know the final resting place of the man who was enslaved for about 30 years before he started the church.

The University of Richmond’s archaeology department already has visited the cemetery to establish GPS coordinates for what’s believed to be the outer perimeter of the graveyard. When the church committee raises enough funds, it’ll hire someone to use ground-penetrating radar to identify soil disturbances – and where actual graves are. The technique is used extensively in cemeteries, said Porter, who’s documented more than 100 graves as a volunteer cemetery specialist with Shenandoah National Park.

Until then, Porter will continue to gather information. She’s having knee replacement surgery and plans to use her recovery time to pore over public records.

Linda Thomas, a Black historian in Bowling Green, praises the preservation aspect of the project, both for current and future descendants interested in tracing family genealogy. She also likes the way the St. Mary’s committee has involved members of the Black community, especially in the discussion about whatever improvements may be made.

"That is a wonderful step in the right direction for all of us to follow," she said, noting that Americans tend to avoid conversations that involve slavery. "For the church to deal with it in a sensitive and Christian way is the lesson we all need at this moment in time."