Learn about Albemarle County Mortuary Practices this Fall

July 17th, 2012

What does an obelisk symbolize? Who is a “relict”? How do you figure out which stones are “headstones” and which are “footstones” associated with family monuments? To answer these questions, Dr. Lynn Rainville is offering a new course on “Death and Dying in Albemarle County” this Fall (2012) through UVA’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. The class will meet Thursday nights from October 25 through December 13 (no class on November 22), from 7pm to 9pm at Darden (classroom TBA).

A brief description of the class: This course surveys 300 years of local mortuary practices, from Native American burial mounds to modern memorial parks. This overview includes a study of gravestone iconography, changing mortuary rituals, and cemetery landscapes.  The goal will be to reconstruct the lives of the dead as well as the beliefs of those that buried them. Visits to nearby graveyards will supplement in-class lectures.

To learn more or register, please visit the SCPS Fall Course List (with lots of great classes). Scroll to the bottom of the page to find the “Death” class (NCSS 123 / 21193).

Recognizing Veterans on Memorial Day

May 27th, 2012

“Memorial Day” has become a gateway to summer: public pools and beaches open for the season, grills are fired up, and public offices are closed. It’s easy to forget the reason for the holiday. Originally called Decoration Day (in recognition of the efforts to bring flowers and flags to the graveside of fallen soldiers), its origins are debated. Some credit southern women for starting the tradition of decorating veteran graves after the Civil War, but the official origins lie with General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, who established the first Memorial Day via a General Order on May 5, 1868. Later that month, on May 30, flowers were placed on the graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers in Arlington National Cemetery. The holiday was first recognized by a state, New York, in 1873 and by the rest of the northern states by 1890. The south recognized their dead on separate dates until after World War I when the scope of the holiday was broadened to remember the sacrifice of all American soldiers who died in any war (as opposed to the earlier focus on the Civil War dead).

In 2000, a federal resolution was passed to create a “National Moment of Remembrance,” encouraging Americans to pause at 3pm on Memorial Day and remember the ultimate sacrifice given by so many of our men and women in uniform.

This year (28 May 2012) Memorial Day observances coincidence with the first annual Virginia Festival of History, celebrating the 250th anniversary of Charlottesville’s founding. The days events are organized around the theme “250 Years of Service in our Nation’s Wars.” The celebrations begin at 11am at the Albemarle County Office Building; followed by a lecture on Sheridan’s James River Campaign of 1865 (by Richard L. Nicholas, Grace Covenant Church, 1:30pm); a film showing and discussion of “Homefront 1967,”  about Charlottesville during the Vietnam War by Art Beltone (also at the Grace Church, 3:30pm); a tour of the Maplewood Cemetery (by Steven G. Meeks, meeting at the cemetery, 5:30pm); and a lecture on Medal of Honor recipients from Charlottesville and Albemarle (at the Grace Church, 7pm). For directions to the Grace Covenant Church, click here. Throughout the weekend, the American Legion will hand out poppies as a symbolic reminder of fallen soldiers. And in Ruckersville, you can visit the Vietnam War Foundation and Museum on Monday (usually it’s only open by appointment).

The tradition of wearing poppies originated with “We Shall Keep the Faith,” a poem written by Moina Michael (1869-1944) in response to another famous poem “In Flanders Fields.” Describing the battlefield of Belgium, McCrae’s 1915 poem began “In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row…” Building on this theme, the second stanza in Michael’s poem read:

We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.

After World War I ended, Ms. Michael began selling silk poppies to raise money for disabled veterans. The American Legion Auxiliary adopted the poppy as an official symbol of remembrance for war veterans in 1921. Other WWI allies adopted the striking red poppy and today it is used in Memorial Day celebrations as a symbolic reminder of the lives lost. To read the complete verses of both poems, click here.

Celebrate C-ville’s 250th Anniversary

May 23rd, 2012

This year marks the 250th anniversary of the founding of Charlottesville (1762). There will be activities all year, but the focus of the celebrations is a one-week tour-de-force of Charlottesville’s rich and diverse history. The festivities begin on May 26th (see below) and continue through June 3. The following list highlights the theme for each day:

May 26 - Remembering Those Who Died in the Civil War
May 27 – Remembering the 200th Anniversary in 1962
May 28 – 250 Years of Sacrifice in Our Nation’s Wars
May 29 – 250 Years of African-American Community Life

May 30 – 250 Years of Growing Neighborhoods
May 31 – 250 Years of Religion, Education and Culture
June 1 – 250 Years of Architecture, Development and Design
June 2 – Living History Festival of Our First 200 Years
June 3 – Reenactment of the British invasion of 1781

Below is a summary of the events for the first week (click on the image for a larger picture). But please visit the official Celebrate 250 website for complete information and the location of each event.

Birckhead Family Cemetery

April 5th, 2012

Old family cemeteries are often subsumed by modern developments, roads, and construction projects. In this case, a northern-Albemarle cemetery was enveloped by a series of new town houses, just west of the Target/Kohl’s mall and Route 29.

Birckhead Family Cemetery

Birckhead Family Cemetery

The photo above, taken by Rob Eastman, shows the cemetery tightly packed in between houses. Fortunately, a metal fence was erected recently to protect the graves. The modest markers are paired head and footstones (as shown in the close-up below). The family patriarch was Samuel B. Birckhead a white man born in 1815 or 1817. He married Adeline Jane Durrett in 1848 and died in 1905. For more information on Samuel, please visit a genealogical site hosted by a descendant. The cemetery was originally part of a family farm was owned by Thomas Mann Birckhead (born in 1852). For more information on Thomas, please visit an external site here. Thanks are due to Mr. Eastman for bringing this site to my attention.

Although I am not entirely certain ‘who,’ I would assume that it was the developers who cleaned up the site and put in the fence. The photo below, taken by the genealogist mentioned above, shows the overgrown condition of the cemetery as of 2006. The original photograph can be seen here.

African-American Cemeteries in Albemarle

January 25th, 2012

Attend a free lecture on local African-American Cemeteries by Dr. Lynn Rainville at the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library Sunday, February 5th at 2pm in the McIntire Room (third floor, central branch of the library). Professor Rainville will discuss her research into historic, black burial grounds and the associated mortuary beliefs and funerary patterns. Come learn more about these “outdoor museums” of African-American beliefs and family connections.

Prior to the talk, explore a related website designed by Prof. Rainville that includes information about dozens of historic, black cemeteries in Albemarle and Amherst Counties. Below is an excerpt from a walking tour of Charlottesville’s historic Daughters of Zion Cemetery (located minutes away from the Downtown Mall). Clicking on the image will take you to a virtual tour but please get out to see the real thing!

Enslaved People at University of Virginia

January 16th, 2012

Upcoming event, January 25th, 2012, Noon: “The Enduring Legacy of Henry Martin and Other Enslaved Laborers at U.Va.” (in the Harrison Institute auditorium). Later that day, at 5:30 p.m., a second event will be held to honor Mr. Martin as part of U.Va.’s commemoration of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (in the Rotunda Dome Room). Several scholars will discuss the lives and contributions of Mr. Martin and other formerly enslaved people at UVA during the lunchtime lecture.

Mr. Martin was born into slavery at Monticello on the day that Thomas Jefferson died: July 4, 1826. He was later sold to the Carr family, but eventually earned his freedom. In 1847 he was hired (as a free man) to be the bell ringer for the University of Virginia. Waking at 4am to begin work and tending to the bells throughout the day, he worked until his retirement in 1909. He died in 1915 at age 89. To read more about his life and the upcoming event, visit an external link to a UVA press release about Henry Martin and the upcoming events.

An Open Forum at UVA: Preserving Our Past, Framing Our Future

October 31st, 2011

Join University of Virginia students (Memorial For Enslaved Laborers Committee) as they discuss their efforts to create a more appropriate Memorial to commemorate the enslaved laborers who constructed the University and lived on grounds during the antebellum period. An open discussion will beheld November 2nd from 7:30 to 8:30pm in Clark 107. The discussion will include a history of the project, a dialogue about its design, and comments by a guest speaker, Professor Claudrena Harold (Associate Professor, History).

A related effort is “Ucare:” University and Community Action for Racial Equality. This project is dedicated to “helping the University of Virginia and the Charlottesville communities work together to understand the University role in slavery, racial segregation, and discrimination and to find ways to address and repair that legacy, particularly as they relate to present day disparities.”

Both groups are working on better ways to commemorate the enslaved African Americans who lived and worked at the University during the antebellum period. The photos here illustrate the current, inadequate memorial (which lies under foot in a corner of the brick pathway that surrounds the Rotunda) and two top-place finishers in a recent competition to design a better memorial.

Memorial Day Cemetery Tour

May 10th, 2011

Spend this Memorial Day honoring some of Charlottesville’s former citizens and learning more about how Charlottesvillians from the past honored the dead. Join Dr. Lynn Rainville (anthropologist and historian) on a one-hour tour of one of Charlottesville’s most historic graveyards, Maplewood Cemetery (located behind Martha Jefferson Hospital). Learn about historic gravestone symbols, mortuary rituals, and funerals from bygone eras. Find out why Victorian mothers were encouraged to take their children on strolls through the landscapes of the dead. And get a sneak-peak into the lives of 19th-century Charlottesvillians (these individuals will return later this year during the Society’s October Spirit Walk). Tickets are $5 a piece and must be reserved in advance. All proceeds go to the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society to support their efforts to preserve and promote local history. Buy tickets on-line by clicking here.

Canada Community at UVA

May 10th, 2011

I’ve posted in the past about the Kitty Foster site at UVA. Recently, the University of Virginia dedicated a new park at the former site of Catherine Foster’s house and family burial ground.  Foster’s home was part of an antebellum community adjacent to the University named “Canada,” probably a reference to the Free Black population who lived there (slaves were emancipated in 1843 in Canada). Catherine “Kitty” Foster was a Free Black woman who purchased land for a house in 1833. Kitty was born around 1790 and later worked as a laundress for UVA faculty and students. When she died in 1863, the land was subdivided among her descendants and remained in the family until about 1906 when the property was sold to white developers.

Archaeological investigations at the house site have uncovered ceramic sherds, glass shards, animal bones, nails, and a cobblestone path that relate to the everyday activities conducted here. Rivanna Archaeological Services produced a comprehensive report on these findings and the historical context of the Foster family in a report titled, “The Foster Family-Venable Lane Site: Report of Archaeological Investigations.”

In 1993 a coffin was located at the site during the construction of a parking lot. After an initial archaeological survey in the 1990s, Rivanna Archaeological Services returned in 2002 and 2005 (read more about their findings in 2005) to locate additional unmarked graves, totaling 32 individuals (read the story here). Because of their proximity to the house, these remains are believed to be relatives of Kitty Foster. After locating the burials, the human remains were recovered and left undisturbed (the photo illustrates a re-landscaping effort to indicate the location of the unmarked burials).

The more recent dedication ceremony included a newly constructed “shadow catcher” designed by Walter Hood and Cheryl Barton. This metal structure casts a shadow over the location of the cemetery and symbolizes an abstract outline of the house and its chimney.

>>For more information about the dedication ceremony, click here.

>>To read an article about the planned site in The C-ville, click here.

>>To here an interview with Dr. Gertrude Fraser (UVA vice provost for faculty recruitment and retention ) about the Kitty Foster Site, click here.

>>The site is listed on the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities African American Heritage website.

Slavery at the University of Virginia

August 5th, 2010

I have recently posted an unpublished manuscript by a local historian, Gayle M. Schulman. Read below for background on her work and a link to download the article….

In 1996, local historian Gayle Schulman came across a series of letters written in 1866 by Isabella Gibbons, a newly freed slave who taught in the Charlottesville’s Freedman’s School. Ms. Schulman’s project to research the life of Gibbons and her family (part of which was published in the Magazine of Albemarle County History, Vol. 55) led her to other studies of local African American history.

During her research into the Gibbons family she learned that both Isabella and her husband, William Gibbons, had been owned for part of their lives by University of Virginia Professors. In 2003, Ms. Schulman began a systematic review of archives, manuscripts, census data, church membership lists, and birth and death records searching for clues to their lives as individuals and as members of a community. A portion of this research is illustrated in her manuscript titled “Slaves at the University of Virginia.” To download a copyrighted version of this 33-page article (pdf file), click here.