Virginia Cemetery Provides Glimpse to Slave-Trading Past
An historian has found a 19th-century cemetery with grave markers that have African symbols etched on their surface, a rare link to the nation’s slave-trading past.
Rachel Malcolm-Woods, a James Madison University teacher, said the inscriptions, or ideograms, are from the West African Igbo culture and could be the only known examples in the United States. Some graves may hold the remains of Africans brought to America for slavery.
Malcolm-Woods is a doctoral student in history and art history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. With a grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, she is studying the site outside of Lexington within the George Washington National Forest.
Igbo, with a language and belief in ancestral worship, is most common in Nigeria. The symbols on the headstones here may be Nsibidi, a system of signs also used on textiles, costumes and bodies, Malcolm-Woods said.
The main marking on the gravestones is a rectangular symbol with two circles that Malcolm-Woods thinks signifies a journey. Other inscribed symbols on the slates are a star-like design that she believes means unity and a flower image that may signify two men loving the same woman.
Several stones are blank. Two have words inscribed. One is for an infant who died in the 1890s, and the other names a Mrs. Downey, who was born in 1839 and died in 1897.
The Downey stone is the only key to who is buried here besides land ownership records, Malcolm-Woods said.
A rusty iron pot in the ground at the cemetery may have been for animals and other offerings, she said.
“They’re still very unusual and deserve to be preserved because we have nothing else like them,” said Mike Trinkley, director of the nonprofit Chicora Foundation in Columbia, S.C. The foundation does archaeological and historical research and preservation of Black cemeteries and other sites.
Trinkley, who has seen photos of the tombstones in Virginia, is advising Malcolm-Woods about conserving them.
Malcolm-Woods has found 13 headstones and 20 burial impressions. Some stones are stored at a U.S. Forest Service office.
The site’s obscurity could have been intentional. Blacks found inscribing the symbols may have been punished by Whites who considered such markings witchcraft, Malcolm-Woods said.
The symbols could have been a way by Blacks to defy Whites and communicate secretly to observe customs, said Dr. Joanne Gabbin, an English professor at James Madison who is on a committee studying the cemetery.
“There’s always been a desire to express yourself in terms others than those of the majority culture,” Gabbin said.
The headstones may end up in a museum or as part of a Black heritage trail. Such a spotlight would be a big move for the stones that have lain nearly disguised in the forest. Research on the cemetery may help uncover other sites in the country with Igbo symbols, Malcolm-Woods said.
“People have looked at this and not known what it is,” she said of the cemetery. “It’s waited for somebody to tell its story.”
— Associated Press
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