People's Memorial Cemetery, Petersburg Virginia

Date added: October 05, 2023 Categories: Virginia Cemetery
Looking south from South Crater Road at granite coping plot #315 (2007)

People's Memorial Cemetery was established when William H. and Edith Williams deeded one acre of land to twenty-eight prominent members of the black community in 1840. This was the first black-owned cemetery in Petersburg's Hustings Court, and it became the largest Black cemetery in Petersburg.

Burial practices had evolved as highly important in the African-American community, as they provided a chance for plantation-bound individuals to acknowledge a member of their own community. Handed-down African customs dictated that an individual's funeral was one of the most important events in his/her life, and the conversion to Christian funeral practices ensured that white owners usually condoned these funerals.

African-Americans were influenced not only by Christian burial practices, but also by European cemetery design. In 1830, the French-inspired "rural" cemetery movement began to take root in this country. Starting in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, cemeteries took on the look of pastoral landscapes designed to evoke the feeling of a calm retreat in nature. Monuments were interspersed with groupings of trees and plants to create an image of the continuity of life. Winding pathways (such as the original horseshoe-shaped drive at People's Memorial Cemetery) ensured that visitors traveled slowly through the graveyard.

The creation of benevolent societies ensured that "free persons of color" received respectable burials. The Elebecks and Stewarts, two of the families represented among the 1840 purchasers of this "burying ground," were members of the Benevolent (later "Beneficial") Society of Free Men of Color (BSFMC), which caused the cemetery to be known as "Beneficial." The earliest American benevolent society dates to 1783, and the BSFMC, Petersburg's first society, was chartered in 1818." The importance of benevolent societies stems from the sense of community they fostered among city-dwelling African-Americans. These societies functioned by collecting an initiation fee and monthly dues from each member, which ensured the member "a square in the place of internment," along with small cash grants to surviving family members. As every member was required to attend each member's funeral, funerary arrangements soon became the primary function of these societies. The graves of members were marked with plaques or "lodge stones." The stones associated with twenty-four benevolent societies have been identified within People's Memorial Cemetery.

In 1865, William H. Williams sold the two acres south of the first tract to a group of ten prominent free blacks, including undertaker Thomas Scott. These men had business dealings with each other and the purchasers of the first tract, and were more than likely members of a mutual assistance or burial society. Three African-American craftsmen (Peter Archer, Armistead Wilson, and William Jackson) purchased the final five and one-eighth acres, adjacent to the existing cemetery property, from Williams' estate in 1868. Each of these men established a sixteen-foot-by-sixteen-foot grave plot in the northeast corner and Archer built a house on his portion to the south of these lots. Archer, Wilson, Jackson, and their families, are believed to be interred in this area, now the northern corner of People's Memorial Cemetery. The heirs to Jackson's estate, Eloise and J. C. Drake, purchased Archer's third of the land in 1877 and the southern half of Wilson's tract in 1879. The northernmost half of Wilson's parcel was sold to undertaker Thomas Scott in 1879, and the cemetery was generally referred to as "Scott Cemetery" by 1880.

Peoples' private ownership meant that there was often no standing agreement for the care of the burial grounds and no common repository for burial records. This not only caused periodic physical neglect, but has made it impossible for a comprehensive map of the burials to be drawn. Another result of the numerous owners of People's Memorial Cemetery is that the different sections were referred to by different names throughout its history. The names of the sections included, from north to south: Old Beneficial, Beneficial Board/Scott Cemetery, Providence First Section, Providence Second Section, and Jackson Cemetery/Jackson Memorial Cemetery Section.

In 1931, J.M. Wilkerson, another African-American undertaker, attempted to consolidate his two-and-a-half-acre Little Church Cemetery (which formed the northern border of People's) with the larger cemetery. However, the deed for this transaction was lost and the title to Little Church remains in Wilson's name. People's lack of fences may have also contributed to the blurring of responsibility for its care. Observers, such as W. E. B. Du Bois (1907), referred to the entire Littke Church/People's tract as "Providence Cemetery."

Despite the lack of physical care it received, most of Petersburg's African-Americans continued to take pride in the cemetery. Periodic attempts to reconstitute or replace the organizations in charge of the cemetery tracts usually died, but interest in the Cemetery never did. In 1906, the Women Union Cemetery Club raised, $350 to purchase a new iron fence with a central arched gate, which read "Providence Cemetery."

Thomas H. Brown, who began his undertaking career under Thomas Scott, became the sole owner of People's Memorial Cemetery by 1920. He campaigned to secure tax-exempt status for the Cemetery, and, in 1922, he reorganized the existing People's Association as the Colored Cemetery Association.

Brown convinced the city government to draw up plans for bringing the cemetery into line with city health and safety regulations, as well as provisions for improving the grounds. Funding was to come from the public and, despite Brown's campaigning, the money was not forthcoming. In 1926, however, the Cemetery Memorial Association and Colored Chamber of Commerce sponsored a $3,000 improvement program. Elaborate plans were drawn up to organize the plots into neat rows, named for prominent local African-Americans. Unfortunately, funding fell short again and no more significant improvement efforts were attempted.

The final blow to Thomas Brown's vision for People's Memorial Cemetery came in 1943, when the City government decided to widen South Crater Road, thus paving over about one-tenth of an acre of the cemetery. To compensate for this, the city deeded People's one acre of land on the southwest margin of the cemetery for the re-interment of the 108 burials that had to be removed from the roadway. While these provisions allowed the new section to be neatly organized for the first time on a grid system, the City's pledge to reset the fence and 1906 gate went unfulfilled and both have disappeared entirely.

As of 2007, the cemetery is neatly maintained, with evenly-cut grass and weeds framing both sides of the dirt-and-gravel track that bisects the cemetery. This undergrowth is trimmed carefully around each stone, and the debris pile from the city's 1998 efforts to clear more excessive underbrush is covered in grass, making it look like an oddly shaped hill in the middle of the graves. Talliaferro Road has been paved. The large, deciduous trees are still present and in good condition, though a few are overgrown with vines. While the city appears to be maintaining the cemetery on the most basic level, more complete restoration is needed. The iron fences surrounding several of the grave plots are either partially or completely missing, and one shows signs of vandalism. The trees pose a threat to the graves and ornamentation. Several trees near the center have encroached upon and toppled some stones. Others are encroaching upon the iron fences or breaking up the curbing. While these trees add to the rural cemetery feel, they are threats to the site's most precious asset: the graves themselves. The remains of curbing mark many plots, but nearly all of these are either broken or missing large sections. One site on the eastern half of the cemetery has attempted to remedy this by replacing the damaged concrete curbing with cinderblocks. However, as one 1890's observer noted, the cemetery still needs some form of fencing, both to protect from future vandalism and carelessness and to frame it once again as a proud reminder of the community's heritage.

Site Description

The People's Memorial Cemetery is being nominated under the African-American Cemeteries in Petersburg, Virginia, 1820-1942, MPD. The land comprising the cemetery was deeded by William H. and Edith Williams to various prominent African-Americans in Petersburg in three sections: the first tract of one acre was deeded in 1840, the second tract (two acres south of the first) was added in 1865, and the final five-and-one-eighth acres were deeded circa 1880. The full 8.2 acres comprise a roughly trapezoidal shape.

Dotted with mature oak trees and a few ornamental shrubs, the cemetery's irregular topography contains no formal pathways. Grassy areas are broken only by a straight, narrow, two-track gravel road, which bisects the cemetery, running east from South Crater Road to St. Andrews Street on the western border. The burials themselves are organized into family plots of four to eight graves each; many are enclosed by low concrete walls or iron fences. Burials outside these groups may represent single burials or remnants of those that have lost their markers and/or surrounding walls.

Over half of the monuments in People's Memorial Cemetery are made of concrete, while the remaining markers have been carved from marble or granite. Many display vernacular examples of Victorian and early-twentieth-century designs. Also included are a number of small marble "lodge stones," which denote an individual's membership in a fraternal order or other organization. The conditions of the stones and other monuments vary. Most of the remaining stones are in relatively good condition, but a few have been toppled or broken. The grass is kept neat, but some of the plot fences are falling over. Lighting in the cemetery is limited to a streetlamp on the far southern corner on Talliaferro Road.

People's Memorial Cemetery lies on the west side of South Crater Road, south of the adjacent Little Church Cemetery. A ridge runs northeast-southwest into Little Church Cemetery and is paralleled by a shallow ditch, which terminates on the southwest corner along Talliaferro Road. This southern portion contains the steepest terrain in the cemetery, while the earlier, northern portion is much more level, thus providing what would probably be considered the prime lots. In addition to the gravel road that bisects the property, a dirt road of about 125 feet in length extends into the southeastern corner from South Crater Road, and a narrow path of about fifty feet extends into the southeastern border from the Windy Ridge apartment complex.

Maintenance efforts have been sporadic over the years and often resulted in the damage of various features of the property: many graves show the scars of nylon-string weed trimmers and some of the human remains investigated in the spectrometer survey showed unusually high compaction rates, probably due in part to the heavy equipment the City of Petersburg contracted to clear the underbrush." The debris from these efforts, which was dumped near the center of the cemetery, is now covered in grass. Although some stones are broken, the pieces are kept close to the bases, and the surrounding weed and grass cover is well-trimmed. Many broken stones do show evidence of attempted repairs, but the use of Portland cement has lead to further breakage on some. Of the Victorian iron fences that remain, some are missing sections, and several more have been either partially or completely uprooted, but remain on site. However, four remain intact with only minor cracks and a thin rust cover, despite their age.

With the exception of the gravel road and the two paths mentioned, there is no circulation plan for the cemetery. Visitors may roam through the cemetery by whatever route they choose. Compressed soil and less healthy grass point to the location of a horseshoe-shaped track that once provided access to many grave sites, but it has grown over since the addition of the gravel road nearly forty years ago. The lack of any traces of paving material suggests that the original paths of the cemetery were never more than dirt walkways, most likely following the outline of family plots. Although original plans for the layout of these plots have been lost, varying amounts of concrete and granite curbing appear around many sites. Granite curbing was usually carved in four- to eight-foot sections, often with taller corner posts, and attached by iron dogs. Concrete curbing was typically manufactured on site; several fragments show a family name impressed at the entry point. Some of the curbing at People's is in very good condition, while other sections are cracked, displaced, or tilted.

Original lots are estimated to have been between seventeen and eighteen feet square, providing about three hundred square feet per plot. Visual reconnaissance has shown evidence that many lots, especially along South Crater Road (route 301), had either fences or curbs to mark them. These features, along with the general lack of pathways and the asymmetrical groupings of deciduous trees and old cedars, show the influence of the rural cemetery movement. This movement emphasized the use of pastoral landscapes and natural, gently rolling terrain in contrast with earlier more extravagantly adorned and symmetrical Classical cemetery layouts. The unique evolution of People's Memorial Cemetery is evident of the fact that it shows very little influence from later cemetery movements.

People's Memorial Cemetery currently contains 692 stones. The grave sites are consistently orientated in one of two patterns. All of the stones in the original section are oriented in an east-west fashion, while those relocated from the 1943 widening of South Crater Road (re-interred in the southwestern portion of the cemetery) have a north-south orientation. "The variety of markers present is great, with headstones comprising the most common type of marker (See Figure 1 for an illustration of these designs). Most of these are of the traditional marble or granite forms, typically square, rounded, or segmented tops. While most are of a very plain, simple style, there are also many ornamented ones. The presence of a number of Victorian styles indicates that the African-American community was influenced by these late nineteenth and early twentieth-century designs. Also prevalent are "lodge stones," which denoted an individual's membership in a lodge or fraternal organization. These typically only document the name of the organization, the individual, and a death date.

These stones appear to have been created by the same stone carvers who crafted the rest of the monuments in People's Memorial Cemetery. While a cemetery of this size certainly contains the work of many craftsmen, only four have been identified. The most commonly occurring inscription belongs to the firm of Burns and Campbell. Also identified are the insignia of C. M. Walsh (found on some of the more ornate stones), Pembroke Granite Works, and M. R. (Milton Rivers).

Many of the headstones are believed to be of the "die in socket" forms, which consist of a usually rectangular vertical slab of marble or concrete fitted into a horizontal square base. Next in popularity are the die in base stones, constructed of granite, marble, or concrete in the same manner as the die and socket stones, without a socket. The vertical marker is attached with metal rods implanted in the two stones.

Third in popularity were plaque markers, with bases made either of concrete or stone such as marble or granite. These bore metal plaques, detailing the interred individual's information. Marble or granite lawn-type markers were the next most common. These were simple square or rectangular monuments, never more than two feet square and typically raised only a few inches above the ground. The fifth most commonly occurring style of headstone was the government-issued military stones, which date from the Spanish-American War to the First World War.

Metal funeral home plaques also are present as is the bedstead style monument. A bedstead monument included a footstone and side rails laid to imitate the form of a bed. The majority of these are made of marble.

More extravagant and rarer markers strongly resemble those in the white section of Blandford Cemetery (also in Petersburg). Raised-top markers are rectangular, usually granite slabs raised about six inches above the ground with the inscription on the flat top of the marker. Neoclassical pedestal tombs consisted of an often high and multi-tiered base, which terminated with an urn or other decorative element. Also referred to as obelisks, these markers usually predate 1920. Pulpit markers are typically less than thirty inches tall and inscribed on the slanting top of the marker. Finally, base, die, and cap monuments were usually constructed of granite or marble and predate 1930. These heavy stones consisted of at least three or more pieces: a base, which is often tiered and inscribed with the family name; a central massive die, which usually contains the epitaph; and a cap.

The remaining markers fall into none of the previously mentioned categories. Some are chunks of building materials or rough stone, probably found or purchased very cheaply from local stonecutters. One example is a brick inscribed only in magic marker. Popular in white cemeteries of the same time period, concrete ledger stones were thin horizontal stone slabs laid to cover graves of about three-by-six feet. Occasionally set on a low masonry base, the stone would be supported by four to six pillars. Another interesting stone is a marble column with an integral base, with crude carving on the base. The presence of only one concrete ledger stone indicates that this type of stone was either out of style or beyond the financial capabilities of the families purchasing stones.

There are several manmade features in addition to the gravestones. Most appear to have marked the boundaries of certain plots. One example is a carved marble tablet inscribed "HENRY H. KERR'S SQUARE." Due to the fact that no comprehensive plan for the location of graves within the cemetery is known to have existed, it seems likely that people would have wanted to take extra measures of precaution to protect personal plots. Other surviving spatial markers include a concrete and brick wall along a 25-foot section of St. Andrews Street; presumably put into place to separate the cemetery from the adjacent neighborhood. There is no evidence that benches or park-style furnishings, common features of the Rural Cemetery Movement, ever existed in People's Memorial Cemetery, although it appears that several family plots contained trash cans at one point, though none of these remain.

Five plots, all located at the north end of the cemetery, contain remnants of iron fencing. The fencing on plots 20, 21, and 27, which exhibits a pattern of apex-topped posts and an ornamental name-plate gate, was manufactured by Valley Forge in Knoxville, Tennessee. Two gates contain the winged shields associated with this company's insignia. Plot 25 was once bounded by a fence, and, although most of it is now stacked on the edge of the lot, the remaining gate shows a circular shield with the name "C. HANIKA / & / SONS / MUNCIE, IND." Plot 37 is surrounded by a hairpin-and-picket fence, manufactured by the Cincinnati Iron Fence Company in Cincinnati, Ohio, in a design that is very similar to Stewart Iron Works design pattern 26- 28. This suggests that many iron manufacturers used essentially the same designs, with only minute variations. Finally, there is a remnant of woven wire fencing set on wood posts with a bottom rail (set at a grade). Dart-shaped "pickets" occur every six inches, woven into the horizontal wires.

Many of the inscriptions and symbolism on the stones of People's Memorial Cemetery are distinctly Judeo-Christian. Many scriptural references can be found. While some refer to the Christian hope in life after death (such as Revelation xiv, 13, "Happy are the dead who die in the faith of Christ"); others reflect on promises of peace (for example, Psalm 23: "The Lord is my shepherd..."). Unique to African-American cemeteries in Petersburg are numerous references to "Mizpah," the Old Testament site of a "protective bargain" struck between Jacob and Laban after Jacob had escaped Laban's mistreatment. Traditionally used as a benediction of God's protection, this word seems to have taken on new meaning in the African-American community. Perhaps invoking Jacob's declaration that "the God of Abraham. ..will judge between us," they may have hoped for divine justice concerning injuries suffered at the hands of whites.

Plants, such as the dogwood, ivy, rose, and acanthus leaves provide much of the cemetery's symbolism. Dogwood flowers, for example, are often icons of Christ's crucifixion, while acanthus leaves have been known to represent Christ's crown of thorns. Other symbolism includes doves, lambs, praying hands, the gates of Heaven, and an anchor.

People's Memorial Cemetery, Petersburg Virginia Looking south from South Crater Road at granite coping plot #315 (2007)
Looking south from South Crater Road at granite coping plot #315 (2007)

People's Memorial Cemetery, Petersburg Virginia Looking south towards Talliaferro and St. Andrews Streets (2007)
Looking south towards Talliaferro and St. Andrews Streets (2007)

People's Memorial Cemetery, Petersburg Virginia Looking across cemetery at landscape and fallen headstone (2007)
Looking across cemetery at landscape and fallen headstone (2007)

People's Memorial Cemetery, Petersburg Virginia Looking from paved/gravel drive just off South Crater Road to the southwest (2007)
Looking from paved/gravel drive just off South Crater Road to the southwest (2007)

People's Memorial Cemetery, Petersburg Virginia Looking west over Plot #19 with granite coping to iron fenced plot #21 (2007)
Looking west over Plot #19 with granite coping to iron fenced plot #21 (2007)

People's Memorial Cemetery, Petersburg Virginia Looking from paved/gravel drive just off South Crater Road to the south (2007)
Looking from paved/gravel drive just off South Crater Road to the south (2007)

People's Memorial Cemetery, Petersburg Virginia Looking west at Plot #356 with iron fencing (2007)
Looking west at Plot #356 with iron fencing (2007)

People's Memorial Cemetery, Petersburg Virginia Looking west from South Crater Road at Bedstead Monuments in Northeast Corner of Cemetery, #200A and 200B (2007)
Looking west from South Crater Road at Bedstead Monuments in Northeast Corner of Cemetery, #200A and 200B (2007)