In Charlottesville, Virginia, the University Cemetery serves as the final resting place of many of the most prominent community members of the University of Virginia. In 2011, the University planned an expansion. During archaeological research to this end, sixty-seven previously unidentified interments, in both adult and child-sized grave shafts, were discovered on the proposed site of expansion, to the northeast of the University Cemetery. Further archival research revealed that “at least two late nineteenth century references note that enslaved African Americans were buried north of but outside the enclosed University, in an adjacent wooded area.” In one, Col. Charles Christian Wertenbaker recalls: “in old times, the University servants were buried on the north side of the cemetery, just outside of the wall.” Current research suggests that at least as late as 1898 the area of land was recognized as historically utilized by the University of Virginia for “servant” burials. Since these discoveries, a commemoration ceremony has been held. Some beautification measures have been undertaken: a specially designed fence has been installed; some trees have been planted; and at both entrances an informational sign is posted explaining the significance of the plot. Still, this newly rediscovered sacred space stands in stark contrast to the marble tombs and gilded cenotaphs of the University Cemetery and adjacent Confederate monument.
Typically, descendants of the dead reserve rights in a cemetery in the form of some kind of property interest. Mourners and the children of mourners may return from time to time to pay their respects and tend to the graves of their dearly departed. In general, this is a well-established right (though further investigation will reveal that it somewhat less clear than one might expect). However, slavery in America has frustrated many rights, and its long shadow continues to disrupt others. Because of the nature of this property interest, today in Charlottesville, the cemetery rights of the descendants of those slaves interred to the northeast of the University Cemetery are arguably extinguished, or at best unclear. The owner of the cemetery, the University of Virginia, has made no attempt to exclude or to sell the land, nor likely would they, but it is unclear that they could not should they so desire. There are likely other slave cemeteries, on public and private land, that find themselves in a similar situation: specifically, slave cemeteries and African American burial grounds that, because of systemic oppression and discrimination, are rendered unprotected and abandoned—descendants’ rights vanished into nothing.
In exploration of this problem, this paper lays out the historical legal landscape of cemeteries, the special issues that arise in slave cemeteries generally, and the application of these doctrines to the African American burial ground in Charlottesville. Additionally, it presents a suggested legal treatment of this special type of property interest: namely, that there should be legislative reform that, in the case of abandoned slave cemeteries, creates both a public easement allowing access and broad statutory standing so that communities can work together to maintain these sacred sites and police against desecration. Further, the development of the rights of sepulture in American common law and the accompanying legal solicitude would allow judges to read this regime into existence, even in absence of formal legislative measures.
William A. Engelhart,
Equality at the Cemetery Gates: Study of an African American Burial Ground,
Mich. J. Race & L.
Available at: https://repository.law.umich.edu/mjrl/vol25/iss1/2