Bones of black slave woman put to rest

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Though it has been 200 since she died, the Suffolk community put an African-American slave woman to rest in a traditional African ceremony on Saturday that will become a lasting historical imprint in the minds of those in attendance and beyond.

About 200 people representing a cross-section of the Suffolk community, and some who traveled as far as five hours, came to pay their respect to the woman only known as an African-American Woman.

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Following the service at First Baptist-Mahan in Suffolk, many followed to the Oakland cemetery in Chuckatuck. Television and print media from across the state were on hand for the historical occasion.

The Rev. Donald Allen, pastor of Little Bethel Church, one of the organizers, stated during the services that the goal was to give the woman – believed to have been a slave – a proper reburial. Rather than focus on the &uot;negative and cruel side of slavery,&uot; Allen encouraged the congregation to consider this a new paradigm to &uot;celebrate together the significance of this historical event.&uot;

Allen added that he believes that if the slave woman’s bones could talk, she would thank everyone who came together to make her reburial a reality. Reiterating that point, an excerpt from a poem recited by Laurna Taylor, of Little Bethel Church, reads, &uot;Don’t stand by my grave and cry, because I live in you….&uot;

Tim Thompson of the Army Corps of Engineers stated in his remarks, &uot;It’s a good time to stop and reflect on what we’ve learned from this experience.&uot; The Army Corps initially discovered the remains in 1998.

&uot;The Corps is proud to be a part of the community and honor the past,&uot; he added. &uot;May she rest in peace.&uot;

William Whitley, principal of Lakeland High School, representing Suffolk Public Schools; NAACP President Charles Christian, and Suffolk Mayor E. Dana Dickens III also gave remarks at the service.

Christian stated that Saturday reflected a somewhat parallel to a line from Charles Dickens, considering that it’s been the &uot;best of times and the worst of times.&uot;

&uot;Today we are living in a better time. We are privileged,&uot; said Christian. &uot;But we must continue to strive to reach the next level.&uot;

The community mass choir touched the hearts of everyone present at Saturday’s service, singing African-American hymns that brought attendees to a charismatic stand accompanied by applause. Delivering the eulogy, Dr. Jerome Ross, of Virginia Union University, kept the spiritual momentum going as he invigorated the audience with words from the Bible. Ross stressed, &uot;Taking up the bones is to remember the person,&uot; adding that the bones are a &uot;substance of a deceased person’s soul.&uot;

The choir ended the service with a familiar African-American hymn: &uot;I’ve got a new home over in Glory.&uot;

The gravesite service was marked with African tradition dating back prior to the 1800s. Pennies were given out, nine to be dropped prior to the burial, and nine afterward. White powdered dots were on the foreheads of attendees symbolic of warding off countering spirits at the grave. The Suwabi African Ballet performed an African welcome dance. Elder Baba Losha Adeyemi Oyeiluimi Baba performed the libation, a religious ritual linking those in attendance with the past. African drummers also played during intervals of the service. Some 20 women from the community held a vigil with a tribute followed by LaTonya Brown who also sung an African spiritual.

Mildred Wilson of Norfolk attended Saturday’s service, in part, as a history lesson for her grandson. Wilson is a descendant of Nat Turner, and is continuing to seek out historical information about her family. As for Saturday, &uot;I wanted to make sure my grandson saw this. He’s not going to get this in a history book.&uot;

T.C. Williams, a community leader, said he felt a sense of &uot;kinship&uot; to the woman, and was very &uot;fascinated&uot; with the elaborate ceremony.

Filmmakers Resilience and Lawville Productions were on hand taping both services for a documentary entitled &uot;Treading a Slave Woman’s Path.&uot; Their mission is to make the production available to the Virginia Department of Education and other local schools.

In May 1998, an Army Corps contractor discovered the woman’s human remains in an unmarked grave during a cleanup at the Former Nansemond Ordinance Depot in northern Suffolk. This burial was found on the James River, adjacent to Interstate 664 Monitor-Merrimac Bridge-Tunnel on property now owned by the Virginia Community College System.

An investigation into the remains ensued with the cooperation of Suffolk Police, the medical examiner, and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. They determined that the only way to salvage the remains would be to move them.

Unmarked graves fall under the jurisdiction of Historic Resources, therefore requiring the Army Corps to obtain a permit to move the remains. DNA analysis was conducted in an attempt to determine identity to no avail. Corps archaeologist went on to conduct research to learn more about the area where the remains were found. Information was scarce considering that early court records of Nansemond County were destroyed in three fires, the last of which occurred in 1866. Consequently, no deed or will prior to the Civil War exist to determine ownership of the land.

The initial inquiry pointed to the possibility that the remains were that of a Native American, but that was ruled out after a March 2000 evaluation provided more insight. A sizable historic site was found in a 300-foot area around the burial location, leading them to find household artifacts dating between 1780 and 1810. Based upon this new information, the Army Corps believed there were slave quarters at the location.

At this stage, the Army Corps prepared and negotiated a plan of action for the remains via a Programmatic Agreement with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the Environmental Protection Agency. A more detailed study found copper shroud pins, and the discoloration of the burial soil revealed the shape of a six-sided coffin and remnants of hand-forged nails holding it together. Six-sided coffins and shrouds, in lieu of clothing, were typical of burials conducted during the late colonial period. Cut nails were used by the 1840s.

The remains were then sent to the anthropology lab at Radford University; however, a positive identification could not be made. Radford archaeologists were able to complete an analysis of the bones that indicated that the remains were likely that of a 20 to 24-year-old African-American female. Bone measurement and population statistics contributed to their findings. Additionally, it was determined that the woman was healthy and had no disease.

Further examination of the woman’s remains and bone density indicated that she lived a life of hard physical labor, and may have been one of the 4,400 slaves recorded in the census for Nansemond County at this time. In 1800, slaves consisted of more than 40 percent of the county’s population. Her cause of death was unknown.

After news of the discovery in 1998, public outreach was overwhelmingly supportive of giving the woman a proper burial. This lead to the formation of a committee, including members from Little Bethel Baptist Church, First Baptist Church-Mahan Street, New Hope Baptist Church, Macedonia A.M.E. Church, Congressman Randy Forbes’ office, NAACP, former City Councilwoman Marian &uot;Bea&uot; Rogers, of the Restoration Advisory Board; and Crocker Funeral Home.