Neglected Cemeteries Reveal History’s Priority

A Confederate cemetery is pristinely maintained, while black grave sites are left trashed and in disrepair.

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Relatives of Matthew Palmer visiting his grave site in Old Orchard Cemetery at Camp Peary, Va., formerly the town of Magruder, 1998. Edward Palmer, the writer’s father, is second from the left.

Department of Defense

I’m into cemeteries. This is an accidental development. When my dad died in 2011, he left behind a photo of himself and eight other African-American seniors standing shoulder to shoulder behind two headstones. One is inscribed “Matthew Palmer. Died Feb 26, 1927, Aged 86.”

I knew only that Matthew was my great-grandfather. No one else in my family—at least among relatives I knew—had a clue about him. Given the year of his birth, around 1841, and where he lived (Virginia), my wife and I assumed that Matthew had been enslaved. But as with most African Americans, there’s a vacuum where my family history should be.

But I was pretty sure where the burial site was: Camp Peary, a top-secret military installation in Virginia and the home of the CIA training facility called the Farm. (We’re not supposed to know this, of course, but it’s common knowledge. Just crack open David Baldacci’s thriller Simple Genius.)

Camp Peary was built by the Navy during World War II on land that was taken from dozens of families, most of them African American, including mine. As I was growing up, my dad told me stories about getting booted off the family farm in the town where he lived, Magruder. The years did not ease his bitterness.

I behaved like a journalist when I learned that relatives of the interred are eligible to visit the cemetery. I submitted my request, thinking, “How cool would it be to get onto a classified, supersecret base ... and see an ancestor’s final resting place?”

The gee-whiz appeal began to evaporate as I wandered with relatives—and two surprisingly laid-back base escorts—around the burial ground, barely a dozen sinking graves in a peaceful glade. This was a joyful connection to my past, a small but significant piece of history to fill the gaps.

LOADING GALLERY...
 

I floated until we stopped at another cemetery. This one had been attached to Magruder’s white church. It was damn near immaculate—headstones standing tall, grass nicely mowed. One was set apart from the rest by a white picket fence and festooned with the Stars and Bars, not the Stars and Stripes. An inscription on a simple white cross memorialized the unknown Confederate soldier.

This was not a joyous moment. I was enraged by what appeared to be the neglect of the African-American cemetery and preferential treatment accorded the white one—or, rather, its inhabitants and their descendants. As angry as I was, though, I knew this was simply a sad, dirt-and-marble example of America’s habitual celebration of the whiter aspects of its history and the neglect (and erasure) of its darker ones.

That trip led me here, to Hampton, Va., where I’m teaching and living for the year while making a documentary about the vanished community of Magruder.

Our cemeteries are direct and precious links to our past. Hampton has more than a dozen black cemeteries that can be considered genuinely historic. Buried here are “freedom’s first generation,” as the late historian Robert F. Engs called the formerly enslaved and free people who settled the area.

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