Saturday, September 8, 2018

Petersburg's Historic People's Memorial Cemetery


This morning I attended a meeting at the Petersburg National Battlefield, and on my way back home I made a short detour to visit to People's Memorial Cemetery. This traditional African American place of final rest has a long history. Originally known as the Negro Burial Ground, and later as Providence Cemetery, it appears that it dates back to just after the War of 1812, when some of Petersburg's white militiamen donated land adjacent to Blandford Cemetery for a cemetery for slaves who went to war with them. 


As the burials increased and space diminished, free black benevolent organizations purchased additional acreage to expand the cemetery. Thomas H. Brown, who was probably born enslaved in 1864, formed the People's Memorial Cemetery Association around 1893 to rehabilitate  the burial ground.

Brown served as hospital steward in the Petersburg Blues militia unit, which was part of the 6th Virginia Infantry during the Spanish American War. He would go on to start his own funeral business in Hopewell in the early 20th century. Brown died in 1952 of pneumonia and was buried in the cemetery he helped revive.


Like Brown, there are several Spanish American War veteran's headstones in the cemetery, including William D. Henderson's, a 6th Virginia Infantry comrade of Brown's (pictured above).


There are also a number of World War I veterans in People's Memorial Cemetery. Willie Graves (pictured above), a private, who was born in 1896, died in 1965.


Likewise, several headstones of World War II veterans grace the grounds. James Robinson, who is listed in the 1940 census as a 14 year old in his father Herbert's household on Bollingbrook Street, died in 1954 and is among the long list of former soldiers buried in the cemetery.


Many of the headstones and grave markers include birth dates before emancipation. It is difficult to tell if these people were born free or enslaved since Petersburg had a large free black population. Regardless of whether people like William E. Steward (pictured above) were born free or enslaved, he spent almost 20 years in a slave society before the institution was abolished.


As one might image, due to age and decay, many of the old headstones are difficult to read. On some only a date or two, or parts of names are decipherable.  Peter and Julia Morgan's headstones are shown above side by side.


Many of the headstones included references or markings of fraternal organizations. John R. Morse, apparently belonged to a masonic organization as shown on his marker. It indicates that he was born in 1838.


The daughter of Samuel Butcher remembered her father according to his headstone. It also states that Butcher was "baptized by Elder Sampson White in 1837." Butcher died in 1885 at the age of 70, which means he was born about 1815.


Emma L. Dabney, the wife of Benjamin Dabney, has an impressive obelisk marker. She was born on April 5, 1849 and died on August 21, 1904. It says "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord for they rest from their labors."


The "daughter and only child of Elizabeth James," Sarah Jane James, has a headstone that is intricately carved. It shows she was born in 1853.


In my humble opinion, the most impressive headstone is that belonging to Rev. L. A. Black. It has a bas relief bust sculpture incorporated into the obelisk. Black served as the minister at First Baptist Church in Petersburg. First Baptist claims to be be oldest African American congregation in the United States. Born in 1820, Black died in 1883. He began his pastoring duties in 1873.

People's Memorial Cemetery was turned over to the City of Petersburg for care in 1986. Being just across Crater Road from historic Blandford Cemetery, it is easy to see which burial ground gets the lion's share of care. Today it appeared that the grass in Peeople's Memorial had not been cut or trimmed in quite a while. Many of the headstones need cleaned and reset on their base or straightened in the ground. Hopefully greater attention can be given to this important piece of our local history to ensure its preservation. 

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