MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Thursday, August 22nd. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: A forgotten graveyard.
This is a graveyard that holds the remains of human beings who were slaves.
This year marks 400 years since slave traders brought the first Africans to the United States. A long and brutal history followed.
And America is still struggling with the consequences of that sin.
REICHARD: WORLD reporter Jenny Rough recently talked with a man who discovered a slave burial site on his Virginia property. He’s now trying to create a space that honors the people who endured oppression.
JENNY ROUGH, REPORTER: On a cold February morning in 2010, Bill Haley walked the woods next door to his farmhouse in rural Virginia.
He and his wife, Tara, had recently purchased an extra 11 acres of land to start a spiritual retreat home. As Haley explored his new property, something caught his eye.
HALEY: I saw these stones sticking straight up out of the ground, as if they had been placed, and then found a broken tombstone and realized, oh, my goodness. There is a cemetery…
He heard the local folklore about a graveyard in the woods. But until that moment, he wasn’t sure if it was fact or fiction. Records from the Shenandoah County Library’s genealogy room confirmed he’d found a slave burial site.
HALEY: It was called Sam Moore’s Slave Cemetery because Samuel Moore was the owner of that plantation in 1865.
Those 11 acres were once part of a much larger tract of land: a 420-acre plantation that dated back to the mid-1700s. It’s unclear whether the people buried in the graveyard were slaves of Samuel Moore or a previous plantation owner.
Ground penetrating radar conducted by experts at James Madison University revealed about two dozen graves among the forested section. Three of them were just one meter long. Most likely, children. What were their names? All the stones were unmarked.
HALEY: There was no inscription on them whatsoever and the reason for that was because African-Americans were, it was illegal for them to know how to read or write.
Although the names of the buried slaves are unknown, further research uncovered the names of slaves who once worked on the plantation.
HALEY: You find their names listed in tax records. And will books. In other words, because they were property, they were taxed and that’s the only place you’ll ever find the names of slaves.
Some of the slaves might have been sold elsewhere. But others likely died here, buried at night in the dark. That was the only time allotted for a slave funeral. Any other time would waste working hours.
HALEY: And so they would carry the body of their loved one almost a half mile from where their quarters were up here to a place that was very far away from the mansion, sort of the symbol of their suffering, and they would pray, and recite scripture, and sing and bury their own, and then walk back before dawn so that they could get back to work.
The winter morning Haley found the stones, he immediately sensed he stood on holy ground.
HALEY: This was the final resting place of people whose dignity had never been recognized in their life, ever, except by their own. Those who lived and died under tremendous suffering by that time many, many slaves had adopted Christianity because of their identification with the God who allowed Himself to be subject to great injustice and who could understand and was even with them in the way that they were mistreated, but then also the profound hope of a better life later.
Haley realized the graveyard could help others learn about the deep trauma of the past and open a door to racial reconciliation.
HALEY: So I had this idea to create something where folks like me could learn and understand, and be grieved into sorrow and repent in whatever way was appropriate, and then to commit to being a reconciler and repairer.
But first, Haley asked members of the African-American community what they thought he should do. A group gathered together outside in prayer, standing a few feet above the human remains. It had been a hot, dry summer. As soon as they began to pray, tree leaves started to shake from a rush of wind, the sky thundered, and rain poured down. They prayed through the torrent, many crying. At the word ‘Amen,’ the rain stopped. Later, after a moment of silence, one of the African-American men said it was clear something should be done with the site.
Haley worked with local master gardeners to clear out the brush around the tombstones. They created a tribute space and planted a garden.
KOHRS: We have feverfew. We have tansy. We have some plantation peonies and irises, things like that. But we also wanted to create a monarch way station.
Sarah Kohrs directs the site, now named Corhaven Graveyard. She gives tours of the grounds. For Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the end of slavery, Korhs organized a crew of volunteers to stain a fence around the space that now includes a tall post with a bell. Kohrs explained that during American Civil War time, when a member of the community died, the local church tolled a bell. That wouldn’t have been done for slaves. Now that honor can be given.
AUDIO: [Sound of bell ringing]
Carla Mueller, a Northern Virginia resident, was one of the volunteers that day.
CARLA: Being reminded that everything that’s done in the dark will be brought to the light, and things done in secret will be made known. And thinking about these precious souls who were largely unseen in life and in death for a very long time, but now have a place to be seen and honored and remembered.
A bagpiper played Amazing Grace.
AUDIO: [Sound of bagpipes]
Such events at Corhaven Graveyard help visitors recognize the country’s history of racial oppression and ongoing racial tensions. The deep work of healing begins in the heart.
For WORLD Radio, I’m Jenny Rough reporting from Shenandoah County, Virginia.