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?”

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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.

Department of Defense 
Brian Palmer/Make the Ground Talk

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Erin Hollaway Palmer/Make the Ground Talk
Brian Palmer/Make the Ground Talk
Erin Hollaway Palmer/Make the Ground Talk

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Erin Hollaway Palmer/Make the Ground Talk
Brian Palmer/Make the Ground Talk
Erin Hollaway Palmer/Make the Ground Talk

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Brian Palmer/Make the Ground Talk
Erin Hollaway Palmer/Make the Ground Talk
Brian Palmer/Make the Ground Talk

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Erin Hollaway Palmer/Make the Ground Talk
Brian Palmer/Make the Ground Talk
Brian Palmer/Make the Ground Talk

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Brian Palmer/Make the Ground Talk
Erin Hollaway Palmer/Make the Ground Talk
Brian Palmer/Make the Ground Talk

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Brian Palmer/Make the Ground Talk

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.

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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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Educator Mary S. Peake is buried at Elmerton Cemetery. Peake, a free African American, taught enslaved children during the Civil War and founded a school to educate adults on land protected by Union troops. Her grave is intact, but others at Elmerton are not. (A 2011 survey (pdf) commissioned by the state to assess the potential impact of construction on nearby Interstate 64 adds to the heartbreak of Elmerton: In an effort to restore the cemetery, volunteers dedicated time to clear overgrowth and debris, sadly causing significant damages as well.”)

Thornton Cemetery is behind a 7-Eleven. Look up, and it’s beautiful. Ivy sheaths the trunks of old trees, their leaves in various states of autumn, from kelly green to deep red. Look down, though, and it’s like a staging ground for circus elephants—holes in the earth, stumps and hunks of trees here and there. It’s obvious that Thornton, Elmerton and others have been badly punished by time and vandals. Headstones, many more than 100 years old, lie flat on the ground, in pieces. Nature does not shatter thick marble like this; the business end of a sledgehammer does.

So who’s responsible for these burial grounds? Getting a straight answer is difficult. According to city records and officials, there are no owners of record for the cemeteries that are in the worst shape. “I cannot provide you with a legal opinion about the status of any cemetery or any more information regarding ownership beyond what is provided on the website that I provided as a link,” Steve Shapiro, Hampton’s cemeteries superintendent and deputy director of community development, told The Root via email. “I believe that some of the volunteer groups have researched the ownership of their cemeteries to attempt to locate heirs to transfer ownership to a new owner or associations, but I am not aware of the outcome.” In other words, not our problem.

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The Commonwealth of Virginia has a cemetery board, “which would lead any reasonable person to assume it licenses all cemeteries,” the board’s spokeswoman, Mary Vaughan, told The Root. Here comes the big but: “Once you dig down to it, most of the historically black cemeteries are not covered by our jurisdiction.” The state board handles for-profit cemeteries.

Vaughan added a coda to her explanation. “There’s really an obligation on the part of the municipality to take it over, but you know there are realities—political realities,” she said. “Absent anything else, one can argue that there’s a moral obligation—but that’s well beyond my jurisdiction.”

Some members of Hampton’s black community are working to preserve the cemeteries. Veronica A. Davis heads a group called Virginia Roots that’s dedicated to cemetery preservation. “Ultimately it is up to individuals to take action,” she said, but that doesn’t mean citizens should bear the full burden. “I believe that as we are building budgets for monuments and museums, we should create line items for historic cemeteries.” Voluntarism alone can’t reverse decades of damage.

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During my 2012 visit to Camp Peary, my cousin Hope suggested to our guide, a public affairs officer, that more could be done to preserve and honor Old Orchard Cemetery. I followed up with a letter to the base commander. I got no response—at least nothing in writing.

But over a period of months, base officials took a number of steps, quietly, secretly (no surprise there), to honor the cemetery and the community it belonged to. They erected big, sturdy signs commemorating Magruder. Base personnel built a wooden fence around the cemetery, separating it from the encroaching woods. In other words, they did something. (I know because they sent me photos after the fact.)

I’m hoping they’ll move on to actual restorative work. And I’m also hopeful that Hampton’s authorities might take inspiration from their clandestine colleagues at Camp Peary to protect our disappearing history.

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Brian Palmer is a journalist and documentary filmmaker currently teaching at the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications at Hampton University.