But Peterson is 80, and he can’t stop wondering: Who will care for this little-known repository of community and family history when he’s gone?
There are thousands of graveyards scattered across Virginia, many of them small family burial plots on private properties, according to preservationists and historians. Some date to the founding of Jamestown more than 400 years ago.
But they’re increasingly endangered as a generation of caretakers dies off and people with kin buried out back sell off their family land. The burial sites can become overgrown and, eventually, consigned to oblivion.
“The memory of some of these cemeteries tends to be forgotten,” said Thomas Klatka, an archaeologist with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. “It’s a really widespread problem.”
The state is trying to slow the trend by offering cemetery preservation workshops.
Much is at risk, Klatka said. Cemeteries are spiritually significant landscapes whose grave markers tell richly detailed stories about people and communities. They’re loaded with important historical, genealogical and biological information, not to mention dramas and tragedies.
Rock Hill is no different. Among the hundreds of bodies buried there: Vernon Peterson’s granddaughter, who was killed four years ago in the massacre at Virginia Tech.
“Somebody’s gotta take it over,” Peterson said, standing just inside the immaculate cemetery’s green metal gate. He sighed and spit a stream of Southern Pride tobacco juice on the double-wide burial plot he plans to share with his second wife, Sharon, when they both pass. Their names and “Waiting for Jesus” are already inscribed on the headstone. “Nobody has stepped up yet. It bothers me, yes it does.”
Peterson has been a volunteer caretaker at Rock Hill, which is wedged between farms on a dirt road not far from Middleburg, for more than five decades. Drive past — if you can find it — and he’ll probably be working around the graves.
“It’s one of the finer black cemeteries because of Mr. Peterson,” said Loudoun historian Eugene Scheel. “Really, the cemetery is almost Vernon’s life. He’s very possessive of it.”
A place of pride
The sloped woodland was purchased in 1889 from former slave owners who charged the founders four times the going rate because whites were living nearby; breaking through the color line couldn’t come without an upcharge, Scheel said.
Rock Hill quickly became a popular resting place among African American families, including the Petersons. But by the 1950s, it had fallen victim to neglect.