Monday, July 20, 2009

FAHI Documents Historic Graveyards

The Fayette Area Historical Initiative (FAHI) is leading a project to document and preserve church and other historic cemeteries in Martinsville-Henry County and surrounding areas of Southern Virginia. What makes this project unique is that it will also include an inventory of natural features in the cemeteries, and offer public programming to better understand and strengthen the historic bonds that African Americans have with the natural world.

The online registry will include historical information about each site, a list of persons interred, map of grave locations, image of tombstones and other surviving grave markings, and an inventory of trees and other natural features. Directions will be posted on the internet on how to locate the cemeteries and whether visitors are allowed.

The Dan River Basin Association (DRBA) is one of FAHI’s key partners in the project, providing web and grant-writing technical assistance as well as access to scholars in history and the environmental field. Support from the Virginia Environmental Endowment is making the project possible.

“Documented cemeteries are important steps toward historical preservation,” says Curtis Millner, Chairman of the Board of Directors, FAHI. “They are historical with stories to tell to locals as well as tourists and visitors. “ Local historian, Mr. Beverly Millner of Axton, Virginia, has already amassed a library of information to jump start the project. Jackie Keen with St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Sandy Level, Virginia, has submitted a map and other information on her church’s historic cemetery. Some of the graves—and quite likely some of the trees as well—at that site are believed to be more than a hundred years old.

The connection between the human history and the natural world is an important aspect of the project. During the antebellum period, funerals were almost the only times that African Americans were allowed to practice and affirm cultural rituals on plantations or smaller farms. Funerals were extremely important in the ongoing quest to maintain a sense of identity, community and family during oppression. Some research has been published about African-American burial practices , such as the meaning of items placed in and on the grave; direction feet were pointed—much connected to an African past. It was during these times that people held in bondage could escape the almost constant gaze of the oppressor, allowing them to commit loved ones and friends, body if not soul, to the earth with basic human dignity.

In addition to grave cleanups and natural inventories, the project will include educational programs and community discussions on topics such as how historical landscape preservation can also help protect rivers and green space; African-American farming and land stewardship knowledge and practices; meaning of African-American burial rites and practices; and rich environmental ethics of the African Diaspora as expressed in myths, folklore and spiritual traditions.

“Landscapes and wild places have been the staging ground for the creation of our identity and community,” says Jenny Edwards, DRBA staff. “Our human story is written there; and nowhere more so than our final resting places. This is where loss and grief find a shared sacred moment with family, friends and other loved ones. At what time is the expression of who we are and what we have meant to each other more important? What could be a more compelling reason to connect to the earth?”

FAHI is a non-profit museum located in Martinsville, Virginia. Its mission is to collect, preserve and interpret African American experiences in Martinsville-Henry County. The museum is open Tuesday – Thursday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Friday and Saturday by appointment. Financial donations to support the project are appreciated can be mailed to FAHI, 504 Fayette Street, Martinsville, Virginia 24112. Any church or individuals interested in joining or contributing to the project may contact FAHI at (276) 732-3496.
Article & Photo provided by: Jenny Edwards

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