The cemetery was historic but suffered from neglect. Tombstones had fallen over. Vandals had destroyed markers. Weeds ran wild.
Edwina St. Rose was saddened by what she saw happening to the Daughters of Zion Cemetery in Charlottesville. She has relatives buried there, and it hurt to see their final resting place falling apart. So for the past few years, the Charlottesville native and a few of her friends have spent their free time trying to restore the African American cemetery, which was founded in 1873.
The city of Charlottesville contributed $80,000 to help with the refurbishing. And now St. Rose and her friends are getting some extra attention for their effort.
Preservation Virginia, a nonprofit group formed in 1889 to protect the state’s historic landmarks and heritage, announced Tuesday that African American cemeteries across Virginia, a schoolhouse built for the children of freed slaves and the General Assembly’s office building complex in Richmond are among the commonwealth’s most endangered historic places.
Also on the list, which the organization releases each year to highlight sites that it believes are threatened by neglect, development or misuse, are a former slave dwelling, natural and historic resources endangered by utility infrastructure projects, and a neighborhood that would be irrevocably altered by development of a 150-year-old tract of land in Richmond.
“We want to highlight awareness that historic preservation of these places is vital to Virginia’s economy and sense of identity,” said Elizabeth Kostelny, Preservation Virginia’s chief executive. “We want to raise awareness of some of these threats, and we really want to offer solutions.”
The Daughters of Zion Cemetery is typical of many African American burial grounds across the state. Upkeep is expensive, and maintenance of the properties fell off as churches closed and communities dissolved.
St. Rose says about 300 people are buried at the cemetery, but only about 150 markers remain. Her group, the Preservers of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery, has been working with landscape architects and monument preservers to salvage and restore the property.
“It’s very rewarding to do this,” St. Rose says. “It’s very satisfying to know that I’m part of a project that’s going to help tell the story of African American history. And I hope that we can get more help to do that.”
One of the largest projects on Preservation Virginia’s list is the General Assembly complex in Richmond. Home to legislative offices, agencies and meeting rooms, the 104-year-old building on Capitol Square is slated for demolition. Last month, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and the General Assembly reached a deal that would launch a $300 million project to help replace it with a new building.
Groups such as Preservation Virginia and Historic Richmond want the current building to be renovated rather than replaced, but Kostelny knows the odds are against them.
“I don’t think it’s out of the question, but it’s going to be a hard step,” she said. Most important for Kostelny is that any new building complements the architecture on Capitol Square and, if possible, that the facades are retained.
Preservation Virginia is also taking aim at statewide utility infrastructure proposals, such as the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines and the building of electrical transmission line towers across the Rappahannock and James rivers. The projects, the group says, should avoid locations eligible for historic listing. It also warned against building in areas where doing so could harm the historic integrity of a community and negatively affect tourism.
“The potential cumulative negative effects on Virginia’s heritage tourism industry are substantial and unprecedented,” the group said in a statement.
For Algeria Tate, one of the locations on the endangered list has a deeply personal connection.
Built in 1867 to serve the children of former slaves, the Howland Chapel School, near the Northumberland County town of Heathsville, is an early Reconstruction-era schoolhouse that is little changed from when it was built.
Tate, 70, attended the school in the late 1940s and early 1950s. There was no indoor plumbing, and the two rooms of the 26-by-40-foot building were heated by an old black potbellied stove. A total of a dozen kids from grades one through four filled the schoolhouse, Tate remembers.
“It was a very close-knit environment, and it was very family-oriented,” she said. “The teacher, Miss Bennett, assumed the role of our second mother. She had a personality that was very caring for her students, but she was a no-nonsense person, also.”
Tate and other graduates of the school, which closed in the late 1950s, are working to turn it and the nearby teacher’s cottage into a museum. They’re seeking funding to stabilize the property and provide upkeep.
“I really believe that there are a lot of people in the area who really don’t know the significance of the school,” Tate says. “It’s part of our heritage.”