By KIM BARTO -Martinsville Bulletin Staff Writer
For years, the final resting place of two freed slaves and their descendants lay forgotten, covered by leaves and brush off of Old Mill Road in Ridgeway.After the cemetery was rediscovered last year, staff from the Dan River Basin Association (DRBA) and volunteers worked to clean up and document the small wooded plot where Uncle John and Jane Burgess and 16 family members are buried.
On Friday, DRBA staff, local officials and several grandchildren, great-grandchildren and other descendants of Uncle John and Jane Burgess gathered at the site to dedicate the historic cemetery. In the 1800s, the Burgesses were former slaves on the Burgess family plantation, which was on the property of what now is the Richard P. Gravely Jr. Nature Preserve in Ridgeway. After they were freed, they continued working for the Burgess family. Their great-grandson, Samuel Hairston, took on the role of family historian and uncovered a lot of information about his ancestors with help from the Bassett Historical Center. He said he is the grandson of Dora Burgess Hall, one of Uncle John and Jane Burgess’s 11 children. Seeing the cemetery restored “means a lot to me,” Hairston said during the ceremony. “I know, growing up, as my grandmother got older, she always remembered this place,” he said. “Some of my cousins remember walking from her house through the woods to put flowers on the graves.” Hairston said he was not among them because he lived in Connecticut at the time. “She wanted everyone to keep their memories alive,” he said of his grandmother. “The cemetery did go into disrepair” eventually, he added, but now “future generations will know who they were.” At the time the cemetery was rediscovered, it was not listed with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, “which means that you could have built a house or a store on it, and it could have been lost forever,” said Brian Williams, DRBA education, outreach and conservation coordinator. DRBA staff did a survey of the plot, and with help from Bassett Historical Center and family members, collected information to document it with the state register. Twelve members of the family buried in the plot have been identified, but six others are unknown. The cemetery is believed to have been established in the 1890s and contains graves dating up to the 1960s, according to information from the state register. The earliest marked death date was that of Uncle John Burgess, who lived from 1845 to June 15, 1935. Jennifer Doss, DRBA Rivers and Trails project manager, gave some background on the family. She told how Uncle John Burgess, a house slave, went to war at age 10 with his then-owner, John Henry Burgess. Uncle John Burgess built earthen mounds in Petersburg for Confederate soldiers to hide behind, saving a number of lives, Doss said. He received a pension for his service to the Confederacy, “which was very rare for an African-American,” she said. He married Jane Roberts, who was born in June 1851 and lived on a plantation in Eden, N.C., in 1869. According to the family, she outlived her husband. One of their surviving grandchildren, Mary Richardson of Eden, N.C., said she used to visit them when she was a girl. Richardson said she did not have many memories about her grandfather but remembered Jane Burgess as being blind. “They was lovely people to be around,” she said after the ceremony. “It makes you feel good to know somebody’s thinking about them.” Another grandchild, James Carter of Ridgeway, remembered walking about a mile to visit Uncle John and Jane Burgess when he was young. Everyone eventually forgot the cemetery was there, he said. Now that it has been rediscovered, “I really feel good about it,” Carter said. “I might be buried in it some day — you just never know.” Dorothy Carter, the Burgesses’ great-granddaughter, shared stories passed down from her grandmother, Annie Lee Burgess. “Grandma Annie always had a story to tell about her dad, how he used to cross the river with logs,” Carter said. “She would tell us how he tended acres and acres of tobacco,” she added, and how the family would walk 10 miles to visit relatives. “That’s showing unconditional love, to walk that far to see family,” Carter said. Norris Funeral Services donated a stone marker for the site “so this sacred ground will always be remembered,” Doss aid. Also, a local Eagle Scout will be constructing small markers to go on each of the 18 gravesites, Doss said. Doss said descendents of John Henry Burgess will be presenting Uncle John Burgess’s chair, which “was used frequently by him,” to Hairston at a later date. He has agreed to loan the chair to the Bassett Historical Center for display. Information compiled from historical records on Uncle John and Jane Burgess will be donated to the Bassett Historical Center, Doss said.
Anyone with information on the cemetery or those buried there is asked to call Doss at 634-2545.