BROOKNEAL — In a clearing about a half mile from the main buildings of the Patrick Henry National Memorial on Red Hill, on the northwest edge of the old tobacco plantation, was a sea of white markers — more than 140 crosses marking the gravesites of the Quarter Place enslaved and African American cemetery.
Until recently, the graves were only recognizable by depressions in the earth, by scattered field-stones and the single engraved tombstone, which carves like a question mark from the soft soil. It was a history almost lost entirely.
But Saturday morning, the cemetery was washed with chatter and song, and crowds of people spilled into the clearing to attend a dedication and remembrance ceremony at the cemetery, a celebration of the lives of the enslaved people who once lived on the site.
Among those gathered were many descendants of Red Hill's enslaved population, there to honor their ancestors and help dictate the narrative going forward.
The cemetery is the burial ground for people enslaved at Red Hill, their ancestors and family members buried after them.
Down a packed earth trail, winding through trees and a sloping embankment, Sheron Simpson of Kuumba Dance Ensemble led her dancers in song, what she called "slave songs," music sung to "bring comfort."
"They sang of jubilee, but it was also sorrowful," Simpson said. Her role in Saturday's ceremony was to "give voice to those who were voiceless," and to "tell their story."
Simpson is one member of the Community Engagement Committee, a group led by Gloria Braxton from Madison Heights, who is a descendant of the enslaved at Red Hill. The group formed following the acquisition of the cemetery, and is made up of descendants and other community members — like educators, historians, performing artists, faith leaders and civic activists.
The committee will help shape the future of the Quarter Place Trail, and tell the story of slavery on the plantation with the help of its researchers and staff.
Braxton said the dedication was an opportunity to "begin a dialogue," an opportunity to acknowledge a narrative often overlooked at historical sites, to plant the seed for greater exploration and change.
"When you learn about your background, when you learn about your heritage, it creates in you the will to want to change," Braxton said. "To create a world that is tolerant and just, a world where people love one another."
The cemetery sits on a 77-acre plot of land that was re-acquired by Red Hill through a grant in 2018. In early 2019, Dr. Brian Bates, Director of Longwood University’s Archaeology Field School, surveyed the area using Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) and marked 147 graves.
The cemetery shows patterns of placement, condition and size consistent with other enslaved cemeteries on southern plantations. Most of the graves are marked by a headstone and footstone and vary between 2 feet to 7 feet in length.
The grave of Matilda Pannell is the only one with a named headstone. She was born in 1861 at Red Hill, and listed as an enslaved individual owned by John Henry at the end of the Civil War in 1865. She died in 1923 and wanted to be buried with her ancestors.
In summer 2020, Red Hill began to research and identify individuals buried at the cemetery. Currently, 40 of the 147 people have been identified using Patrick Henry's 1799 and 1802 inventory, as well as Charlotte County and Virginia death records.
Peighton Young, one of the researchers aiding in the project, said almost 70 enslaved people have been identified by name who worked and lived on the plantation from 1794 to 1865.
Of the historical sites she's researched, Young said Saturday's event was the largest gathering of descendants she has seen.
She said it's powerful visit those kinds of spaces — even more so with dozens of descendants in attendance from all over the country.
Almost 300 people flocked to Red Hill for the dedication, which began at the cemetery and wound back up to the grassy fields of the grounds, where music spilled from white tents, and people could lunch under the sprawl of canopied trees.
Janet Morgan and Sharon Brooks drove from Delaware. Both are descendants of slaves who worked on the plantation, specifically their great-grandmother, Harriet Henry; and Patrick Henry's personal coachmen, Shadrach.
For Brooks, this has been a passion project for some time. She's done her own research, and has photos and old tintype photographs as proof.
Morgan said this was sacred ground for them, and the only circumstance in which she would ever visit a plantation.
“I’ll never experience anything like this again in my lifetime,” she said. At age 81, she called this an excellent way to honor her ancestors, and she was grateful for the researchers and staff at Red Hill who have been in contact with her for the last year.
"It was sobering, it was solemn," she said of visiting the cemetery. "Right now I'm getting chills."
At the dedication, Ceasor Johnson, pastor at Springhill Baptist Church, led the prayers of remembrance. Johnson said his own congregation has descendants of the enslaved at Red Hill, a story that has been in the DNA of the community for generations, but for so long was "not marked by any other way than by nature itself."
"The story has not died, it just hasn't been told," said Johnson. Again and again, as he encouraged those gathered around the clearing to join hands, the cemetery at his back, he said, "We were here ... Yes, we were here."
After the dedication, he said this was a story he felt has been missing from the narrative for a long time. "When we get the opportunity to tell them, that's what I want to do."
Others in attendance, like Lane Brown from North Carolina, said this was a "holy ground." He said the recognition of the cemetery and the history of the plantation's enslaved population was "a period of time that cannot be ignored."
More than a few people brushed away tears before they started back up the hill, away from the cemetery and into the trees that would let out onto the sun-drenched lawn.
Brooks said she cried because she didn't know how long her ancestors were there — doesn't even know, with certainty, if any of them are buried at that plot. But she does know that at least two of her family members died there in slavery, and that it would have meant everything for them to know their family would ultimately live in freedom.
Even if just for a day, she wished should could go back and see them, see the women she descended from who spent entire lives on the plantation, or on others like it. But the ceremony and the dedication was a step closer to unearthing more of history, and a step forward into the next phase of the lifetime of the historical site.