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Exhuming Our Heritage

If anyone had told me years ago that I would communicate almost daily with a white woman whose ancestors almost certainly played a role in enslaving many of mine, I would not have believed them.

Not only do she and I share ties to a small area of south-central Virginia, we also share a cause. We are part of a coalition of blacks and whites trying to save ruins and a slave cemetery on an old plantation site in Danville, Va.

This example inspired me to look for books on that detail the history of cemeteries and plantation structures lost through development or neglect. Preservationists have spared many others across the country from this fate. In August, my blog usually features books about travel destinations. This year’s selections deal with cemeteries, plantation houses and haunted places across the South.

Danville was the last capital of the Confederacy and the hub for the rich tobacco trade made possible by the labor of ancestors of African-Americans. As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, it seems fitting to remember those who died during slavery and whose unpaid labor contributed to building the wealth of this country.

The Danville cemetery is the burial site of many African-Americans held in slavery by a succession of highly distinguished white families, including founders of the city. After a long struggle on her own against development forces who want to uproot the graves, a descendant of some of the slaveholders enlisted the aid of black families who might be descendants of the enslaved. Some are also documented as descendants of a white owner.

My new friend, Anne Evans, a Danville native who lives in California, has various genealogical connections through generations of the slaveholder families, who bear surnames that appear over and over on her family tree and on mine. Dodsons are among them, but so are surnames from almost all the branches of my vast paternal and maternal families. Every ancestor of mine born since Africans were kidnapped and brought to America had roots within a small radius of the cemetery. They trace back six or seven generations, mostly through the well-chronicled Hairston family. My own parents were born nearby.

Through Facebook, several white and black descendants of families associated with the Old Fearn Plantation of Danville, Va., mostly researchers, have formed an alliance to prevent destruction of the cemetery without assurance of proper study of all of the graves and planning for a dignified reburial and a memorial. Fearns were early owners of the site and were among the founders of Danville. Our coalition has written officials, established an online petition and appealed to our far-flung and huge family networks for support through social media and at various reunions.

Plans for development of an industrial park call for destruction of the cemetery and ruins at the site, also known as the Fearn/Brodnax (Broadnax)/Walters plantation or the Coleman tract. The city of Danville wants the graves removed so developers can level the land for use by a Chinese company to assemble furniture. We have suggested that instead of destruction, Danville should embrace the history and develop the land in a way that would attract a lucrative reunion and tourism following.

Even though the Virginia Department of Natural Resources recommended, and preservationists have urged, that the graveyard remain in place, the city of Danville, Va., has applied to the department for a permit to remove the slave graves. The public is invited to comment to the department.

To read more about the treasures of the South that have already been lost and other efforts for preservation, see our selection of books available on at discount prices:


Country Churchyards, by Eudora Welty, $31.50 (List price: 35), University of Mississippi Press, April 2000, ISBN:  9781578062355, pp. 120.

Eudora Welty, the Pulitzer-prize winning author, spent much of her spare time in the 1930s and 1940s strolling through the cemeteries of Mississippi and taking pictures. A collection of those photographs, this book was published in 2005 when she was 91. Her work documents cemeteries in town churchyards and rural graveyards. Folk symbols — emblems, statuary, urns and others details — that often accompanied graves fascinated Welty. Passages about graveyards or funerals from her fiction works accompany the photos.  


Great Houses of Mississippi, by Mary Carol Miller, $40.50 (List price: $45), University of Mississippi Press, Sept. 2004, ISBN 9781578066742, pp. 168.

A photographer presents 95 color photographs and text detailing 35 homes built before the Civil War. As the pictures show the stunning architecture of the period, the stories that accompany them describe the lives of the slaveholding families who owned the houses, the African-Americans who built them and the subsequent generations of people who helped preserve them.


Haunted Places in the American South, by Alan Brown, $45 (List price: $50), University of Mississippi Press, October 2002, ISBN:  9781578064762, pp. 296.

The author collected ghost stories from 55 sites across the South considered “haunted,” including but not limited to cemeteries. Among the sites where ghosts have reportedly been seen and heard are also bridges, forts, mansions, prisons, hotels, woods and theaters. Alan Brown, a professor of English at the University of West Alabama, talked to many people and mined newspapers, magazines and other printed material for stories that have not previously been published in books. The book even gives directions to the sites. Brown has written many books on ghost stories and hauntings.  


Lost Plantation: The Rise and Fall of Seven Oaks, by Marc R. Matrana, $22.50 (List Price:  $25), Jan. 2006, ISBN 157 8069009, pp. 192.

After the Civil War, Seven Oaks plantation in Louisiana fell into the hands of an absentee owner, a railroad company that was indifferent to its history. Decades of fighting with preservationists and the community over use of the plantation exasperated the rail company. In 1977, it sent in bulldozers and had it leveled. The book by a historian and preservationist details the history of the house, of the efforts to save it and of the preservation movement. Built on the Mississippi River across from New Orleans, the plantation was developed by Camille Zeringue, a slaveholder who amassed a fortune from sugar-cane production using uncompensated labor. He became a leader in business and politics. The plantation’s destruction now serves as a warning, a symbol for other communities around New Orleans of how restoring and preserving the beauty of the remaining plantation homes can attract lucrative tourism.


Lost Plantations of the South, by Marc R. Matrana, $36 (List Price: $40), University of Mississippi Press, Aug. 2009, ISBN:  9781578069422, pp. 336.

The same author who wrote Lost Plantation: The Rise and Fall of Seven Oaks presents an illustrated history of 60 of grandest homes of the South that, like many times more, have been lost to natural disasters or war damage, deliberately destroyed in more modern times, victims of neglect or damaged beyond repair by natural disasters. With 145 illustrations, he captures some of the grandeur that was. The text outlines the histories of the sites from construction of the homes to modern times. Mantrana drew from diaries, letters, architectural drawings and documents to tell the stories of the families, black and white who lived and worked at the home sites, as well as of the structures. He explores the history of battles to preserve and maintain the properties and offers insight on how to avoid tragic losses of our heritage in the future.  


The Pursuit of a Dream by Janet Sharp Hermann, $22.50 (List price: $25), University of Mississippi Press, March 1999, ISBN 1578061296, pp. 290.

Set in the Reconstruction era, this book tells the story of a utopian community of freed blacks on a former plantation in Mississippi, at Davis Bend south of Vicksburg. A plantation owner, Joseph Davis, brother of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, had attempted to establish a cooperative community among the people he held in bondage, but the experiment was doomed to failure as long as slavery prevailed. The Yankees tried it again during the Civil War, while holding tight reins on the endeavor. Once slavery ended, the freed people themselves were able to make a go of it. An educated black man, Benjamin Montgomery, bought the plantation for his family and others to build a community that soon prospered.

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