The Mystery of the Gravestones

Two gravestones are unearthed during a construction project. Historians and curators work to solve the mysteries below. Emily Williams tells their story. October 3, 2011


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I'm Harmony Hunter. The headstone on a grave can tell us the name and the age of the person who lies below. But if you know what to look for, it can tell you much more.

Emily Williams, Conservator of Archaeological Materials joins us today to share the stories of two tombstones that were unearthed during a 2004 construction project. Emily, thank you for being here today.

Emily Williams: Thank you for having me.

Harmony: Well, were does this story begin?

Emily: In some ways, actually, the story starts in 1965 when the landscaping crew working on a parking lot uncovered the tombstones, took a picture of them, and then covered them back over and 14 years later put a memo in the files and a picture of the tombstone and a little map with an X marking where they found them.

As you can imagine, 14 years on, their memory about exactly where the tombstones were wasn't quite as accurate as it could have been. So when construction on the building started, archaeologists went out to test the area that the memo had indicated the tombstones were found in and look for them.

They were unable to find them and them, because they were about 100 yards away, and during the construction the construction crew while laying a fiber optic cable encountered the tombstones.

Harmony: We're talking about tombstones. What do they look like? How big are they?

Emily: I've never actually measured their length, which I should, but they're about two and a half to three feet long.

Harmony: Do they stand up from the ground like a cemetery or do they kind of lie flat?

Emily: They would have originally stood up from the ground. They're a kind of tombstone known as a tablet on base, and it's the most common kind when you go to a cemetery. They stand up and they usually have a solid base underneath, and the tombstone would slot into that base. So these tombstones once would have been upright, but at some point in their past, and we believe, that happened in about 1925, they were taken down and buried.

We know that in the 19th century there was an African American man named Alexander Dunlop who owned a house on Duke of Gloucester Street, essentially from old photos we have of his house. His front door is right about where the front door to the Talbot Store is off of Duke of Gloucester off Merchant Square.

Alexander Dunlop was a free black and he was a blacksmith and very well respected within the town. We have oral histories that were collected in the 1930s in which people talk about their respect for him and most likely these two tombstones both stood on his property near his house. One of them belongs to his wife, Lucy Ann Dunlop and the other belongs to a man we believe was her father.

In 1925, that property was purchased by the Williamsburg Episcopal Methodist South Church. They built a church on the lot and they most likely moved the tombstones because they would have been in the way of that church foundations, and because they weren't as interested in traces of African American life since it was a largely white church. That's probably why they were buried at that time rather than re-erected on the church grounds.

Harmony: Where did your involvement begin with this?

Emily: Well, once the tombstones had been excavated by the archeologists and were lifted out of the ground, they were brought directly to my lab because it was understood that they would need some treatment. At the time we didn't know, didn't have all the information on who they were related to. We had the photo from the '60s and that gave us some information, but over the years, partly because a parking lot had been over the site and then the construction vehicles, a lot of dirt had gotten packed into the surfaces of the tombstones, so we needed to remove that dirt to make sure that these really were the tombstones we thought they were and to identify them as much as possible.

So, one of the historians here at the Foundation did a year-long genealogical search and found that, in fact, both the Dunlop and the Hill lines — Robert Hill is the man we believe is Lucy Ann Dunlop's father-in-law — so both those lines had died out, and they were no longer living so we didn't have them to partner in our decision making process.

But one of the things that we remembered was Alexander Dunlop had in 1866 addressed the Congress. He had talked to the Congressional Joint Committee on Reconstruction and testified in front of them about what it was like to be a free black during the Civil War and during his testimony he mentioned that we was a member of the First Baptist Church here in town, which is a historically African American church and the oldest African American church in North America.

So we went to the history committee of the church and said "Do you have any records about this man being a member of the church, and would you all be willing to work with us as a descendent community to make the decisions that we feel need to be made about the treatment of these tombstones?"

They said, "Yes, not only was he a member of the church, we know he was an elder in the church, he was a deacon and we very much want to work with you to tell his story and his wife's story and to make sure that the treatment is appropriate for them." So what we were hoping was that perhaps the church would be willing to display the tombstones in the church.

The reason that we really wanted to make sure that they are seen by people is that Lucy Ann's tombstone has a very special inscription on it. It says, in addition to giving us information about her when she was born and the fact that she was married to Alexander Dunlop, it says that she was born a slave in the Travis family by her consistent Christian conduct and faithfulness she won and retained through life their friendship and esteem.

We know that in the 19th century there are two sets of language that are used to memorialize African Americans. There's language that's used by white masters or patrons and that it tends to sort of be things like, "Mammy, good and faithful servant." And then you have the language that's used by the African American purchasing the tombstones and that tends to focus much more on lodge membership, kinship, church memberships and really trying to contextualize this person.

So on the one hand, on the tombstones purchased by white patrons,they tend to treat the African American as a sort of socio-cultural isolate. You just get that, "Mammy, good and faithful servant," but no information on who Mammy was, when she was born, how long she lived. And Lucy Ann's tombstone is sort of seen as a hybrid of both of these sets of language. We have quite a lot of information about who she was, but then we have this passage about being born a slave.

Harmony: We know a lot about the individuals that were buried there based on the historic record. You said we know what house stood there, what man lived there. Did anyone study the actual remains that were buried to learn more about whether those remains bore out the hypothesis that you had from the written record?

Emily: They did. We're really lucky that the College of William & Mary has the Institute of Historical Biology, which is run by Michael Blakey who is a very well renowned physical anthropologist who did much of his work on the burials from the African cemetery in New York City.

Dr. Blakey and one of his graduate students, Shannon Mahoney, looked at the human remains and they came back and said that they were the remains of a man and a woman both over the age of 45 at the time of their death, which fit the dates on the tombstones. We know that Lucy Ann was 49 when she died, that Robert Hill was 75 when he died, so it suggests that they are most likely the individuals who would have been associated with these tombstones.

Harmony: And those remains were not left under the college corner retail building. They've been reinterred now.

Emily: They were. And they were reinterred in Cedar Grove, which is a cemetery here in Williamsburg. Cedar Grove was a public cemetery that was, I believe, opened in the 1850s and so it was available for burials at the time and it was available for burials from both the white population in town and the black population in town, so it seemed an appropriate place and the City of Williamsburg gave a plot for the burial. The First Baptist Church held a wonderful burial service and CW had a new stone carved to tell the identities of both individuals so we could continue to preserve the other stones rather than re-erect them.

Harmony: It kind of makes you wonder. Do you look at a cemetery differently now when you see these grave markers and you see the language on them and the condition of the stone and the location of the burial and the church that it's associated with? What else can we understand from tombstones that we might not notice at first glance?

Emily: Oh, definitely the way in which they're placed next to each other tells us a lot about how…you know you can look in cemeteries and there's clearly the sort of elite end, or the fashionable end. Then it trickles down to the less expensive tombstones and you can see a lot about that sort of thing.

I know that for my part my family has had a long history of cremation and no tombstones and I've told both my parents that they are definitely having tombstones even if they're cremated because I want somebody to be able to discover them years from now and learn about them and so it's really, you know, as I've, as we've worked on these tombstones and we found out more and more about these individuals and they've sort of become friendly forces in our lab. It's really made me aware of how tombstones tell the story of people and why they're important in that sense.

Harmony: Emily, what a fascinating story. Thank you so much for sharing with us today.

Emily: You're welcome.

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