Here is a story that just made national headlines, about my hometown, Williamsburg, Virginia.
Christianity Today magazine reported this week about “Black Baptists Discover Lost Cemetery in Virginia.” When I was in high school, my school bus would pass by a cemetery everyday. This cemetery just seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. There was no church building nearby. No other buildings. No houses. So, I always wondered what the story was about this place. No one on my school bus, a bunch of mostly white teenagers, knew anything about it either.
As it turns out, this particular cemetery was associated with an old black Baptist church, part of a community called Magruder, a few miles out of Williamsburg, near the current Interstate highway (I-64).
Magruder no longer exists.
Before the Civil War, several large plantations encompassed the area, along with a few small parcels of land owned by free African Americans. After the Civil War, slaves freed from these plantations stayed in the area and built these neighborhoods, all part of the Magruder community. The Oak Grove Baptist Church was founded there in 1887, when parishioners decided that walking a full three miles to attend Sunday services, at the First Baptist Church, in the Williamsburg town, was too inconvenient.
In 1941, as the United States entered World War II, the Navy eyed the property as the perfect place to build a Seabees training base for 26,000 officers and men, known as Camp Peary, which later became a CIA training facility. The African American families were forced to move, and the church buildings abandoned, leaving the cemetery behind. Many of those former Magruder residents settled in the community of Grove, on the other side of Williamsburg. A group from the Oak Grove Baptist Church moved to the area of Waller Mill, not too far from Camp Peary, and the large cemetery. But they had to vacate that property (again) when the new city reservoir was built.
During the time that the church was at Waller Mill, they acquired another parcel of land for another small cemetery. This small cemetery is the lost cemetery described in the Christianity Today article. Over the years, that church community has dwindled, and the site of that small cemetery was lost. In 2021, the lost cemetery was finally rediscovered. The Christianity Today article cites a William & Mary historian, Hannah Rosen, as saying that there might be over 1,000 lost African American cemeteries like this all over the country, most of them probably in a sad state of decay.
Recently, I wrote a blog post about the Confederate military general and educator Robert E. Lee. Controversy about various R.E. Lee statues and memorials have swirled around us for the past few years. But it is important to note that monuments to African American history are fairly rare. The remarkable thing about these Black church cemeteries is that they are mostly built with stone, which will make them more easily preserved, while they also serve as a powerful witness to how the Gospel has sustained these African American communities over the decades, despite being overshadowed by the history of racism in America. Making an investment in them is making an investment in preserving history.
A local television station tells part of the story about preserving the larger cemetery, that I passed by everyday on the bus to my old high school.