Bringing a Cemetery Back to Life
By Sarah Steele Wilson
Oct 3, 2012, 12:28
contributed photo “Present soldiers caring for the past, aided by the future.” Fort Lee soldiers clean a veteran’s headstone with a hand from one of their sons.
It is for the living to care for the dead, a duty Leslie McClammy, Education Specialist with Petersburg National Battlefield, takes seriously.
“This is my passion,” she said, surrounded by graves at People’s Memorial Cemetery in Petersburg. “I want to see it through.”
What she wants to see through is an effort she is leading to restore the cemetery and find the stories buried there.
The African American cemetery is located directly across Crater Rd. from Blandford Cemetery and began in 1818 when the first lot of cemetery land was purchased by the newly established Petersburg Benevolent Society of Free Men of Color. In 1840, they purchased the second lot.
In 1985, the cemetery was deeded to the city of Petersburg and in 2008, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places, a development of which many in the Petersburg government were not aware.
McClammy said the cemetery has fallen into disrepair and out of the public’s consciousness, two conditions she wants to reverse.
“We really want people to know this is here,” she said.
For three years, she’s been working on that. She enlisted students from Petersburg High School’s history club to help her clean up trash that had accumulated on the grounds and tidy up some of the grave sites.
This year, McClammy received a grant that allowed her to pay the students for restoration work they did over the summer.
She has also enlisted the help of Airmen and Soldiers from Fort Lee, who cleared brush away from graves that had become overgrown and cleaned grave stones, some of which belong to veterans.
“The soldiers have done a beautiful job cleaning,” she said. “All the military stones have been cleaned.”
MClammy has a picture of one her uniformed helpers working on a stone with some help from his young son.
“What I see here is present soldiers caring for the past aided by the future,” she said, looking at the photograph.
McClammy and her helpers have also been busy cataloguing the graves and researching the people buried in the cemetery. They’ve been struggling with the work, since the cemetery has taken some hard knocks over the years
Crater Rd. was widened twice, McClammy said, cutting into cemetery land where people may have been buried. A 1940s brush clearing exercise with heavy equipment damaged and displaced some of the stones, which were pushed into a pile and have since become overgrown with grass. McClammy said her next project is to sort through the rubble pile to see if any of the grave stones are still legible and salvageable.
She’s also hoping to close off the narrow road that now cuts through the center of the cemetery, but was never authorized. People simply began to drive across an area where there are graves until a path was worn.
Despite the challenges, some interesting stories have already been unearthed.
“It’s been a neat thing to find out some of the stories of the folks that are buried here,” McClammy said.
One of those stories is that of Rev. Emmett Miller, who McClammy describes as “my favorite.”
The inscription on the stone gave McClammy a clue as to where she should start her research. It identified Miller has the rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, which still exists today on Halifax St. in Petersburg.
“It is the oldest Episcopalian African American church in the states,” McClammy said.
Miller graduated from the Bishop Payne Divinity School, which was established in Petersburg in 1878, to train African Americans for ministry in the Episcopal Church of the United States.
“The neat thing we found out about Miller and his ties to Petersburg is the Buckners,” McClammy said. “There is a gentlemen over at St. Stephen’s now, his name is Buckner, and his great great uncle was Giles Buckner Cooke and he was a Confederate Major. After the Civil War, he came back here to Petersburg and he actually started the first school for African American children and was one of the founders of St. Stephens.”
Miller’s stone proclaims him to be, “A friend of man and watchworn priest of God, whose work was closed with armor fully on.”
McClammy said that the armor in the inscription probably referred to the battle Miller waged, along with Odell Greenleaf Harris, a fellow black Episcopal priest, against racism in the church they both represented.
“They were two African American Episcopal church priests here who just basically fought against everything at all odds,” she said.
The reference to armor may have also referred to the fact that Miller joined the Army as a chaplain in 1918. McClammy said she is talking to officials at Fort Lee, which was established in 1916 as Camp Lee, about Miller’s time at the post.
“We’re wondering if he was one of the first African American chaplains at Camp Lee,” she said.
contributed photo Local volunteers from Petersburg High School and Fort Lee cleared brush and weeds from graves at the People’s Cemetery, located across Crater Rd. from Blandford.
The cemetery also holds the story of a man whose stone reads Samuel Holmes Wagoner, who was a member of the 6th Virginia Volunteer Infantry during the Spanish American War. McClammy said she couldn’t find any record of that name and was at a loss until she found a roster of the 6th Virginia that listed the men’s specialties within the unit along with their names.
“His name wasn’t Wagoner,” she said. “He was the wagoner.”
McClammy is hoping to find more stories connected to the cemetery and is reaching out to the community to try to find people who may know about the people buried there.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” she said. “We’re trying to get anybody in the community who has relatives buried here to give us some information or pictures.”
McClammy has worked with her friend Ken Damrau to build a website listing every known grave at the cemetery, along with inscriptions from the stones and any other information about the deceased they were able to find. McClammy is hoping people will see it and come forward with more information that will allow her to piece together the lives of the men and women resting there.
“We want it to be more than just a list of dead people’s names,” Damrau said. “We’re trying to give them their identity back if we can.”
The cemetery’s self elected care takers have been using two catalogues of the graves, one compiled in 1936 by a private citizen and one compiled in 1999 by the Chicora Foundation, to try to fill in some of the blanks.
“That survey has filled in some holes, like missing death dates,” Damrau said.
In the coming months, McClammy wants to make the cemetery into an inviting green space, where people can visit graves and think about the people buried in the cemetery. She said if people start to visit the cemetery, it may cut down on the amount of trash that is left on the groung.
“We want people to come out here and love the cemetery like we do and learn to take care of it,” McClammy said.
Some progress may have already been made on that score.
“We have noticed, since the kids have been out here cleaning, we have noticed flowers appearing here and there, which was never the case before,” she said.
McClammy has used some of the grant money she received to work on the cemetery to purchase a marker to indicate the cemetery’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places and hopes to have a ceremony for its dedication.
Joanne Williams, spokesperson for the city, said that they are pleased with the work McClammy has done with students and service members from Fort Lee.
“The Park Service really has done a great service in identifying and promoting the graves and cleaning the headstones,” Williams said.
She said that in the future, the city will be doing more to promote the cemetery.
“The city does plan to promote the People’s Cemetery as part of the Blandford tour,” she said.
For the list of graves and information compiled so far, visit peoplescemeteryvirginia.wikispaces.com.