African American Cemeteries in Central Virginia
In Hidden History, Lynn Rainville travels through the forgotten African American cemeteries of central Virginia to recover information crucial to the stories of the black families who lived and worked there for over two hundred years. The subjects of Rainville’s research are not statesmen or plantation elites; they are hidden residents, people who are typically underrepresented in historical research but whose stories are essential for a complete understanding of our national past.
Rainville studied above-ground funerary remains in over 150 historic African American cemeteries to provide an overview of mortuary and funerary practices from the late eighteenth century to the end of the twentieth. Combining historical, anthropological, and archaeological perspectives, she analyzes documents—such as wills, obituaries, and letters—as well as gravestones and graveside offerings. Rainville’s findings shed light on family genealogies, the rise and fall of segregation, and attitudes toward religion and death. As many of these cemeteries are either endangered or already destroyed, the book includes a discussion on the challenges of preservation and how the reader may visit, and help preserve, these valuable cultural assets.
Rainville’s Hidden History presents a well-written, engaging, and at times truly revelatory study. Her careful research was conducted over a span of several years, which allows her observations to go beyond the superficial and the obvious. With a focus on local contexts, but deriving universal insights into history, heritage, memory, and preservation, Rainville’s work is an exemplar of the best sort of research.
Lynn Rainville takes us on a walking tour of African American cemeteries in central Virginia. She tells us about individual lives marked by headstones, fieldstones, and depressions in the sacred spaces where they continue to be part of a living community. She tells their stories, in slavery and freedom, while walking through their cemeteries, each of which connects individuals to families, locality, and region. Even the cemetery itself has a life defended against waves of migration and development. All of these stories are richly textured with detailed information about these sites and their communities, chosen with the eye of an academic authority who writes beautifully for everyone. Traversing these juxtapositions is Rainville’s personal twenty-year journey of encounters with these enduring yet vulnerable features on the intimate historic landscape of African America in Central Virginia.
Lynn Rainville is Research Professor in the Humanities at Sweet Briar College, where she also serves as the Director of the Tusculum Institute.