What would you do if you were given the bodies of the victims of a long and violent oppression perpetrated by your own people? That’s a question I never even dreamed of asking, let alone that one day I’d have to answer it.
When we made the move from the inner-city of Washington DC to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and bought the property that would become Corhaven, we also bought an additional few acres of woods carved out from a huge, 600-acre farm that had remained undivided since the Lord Fairfax Grant created the fence-lines well over three centuries ago in 1649.
We bought that small slice of woods from that farm because we wanted to provide a place for people to walk in the woods and meet God. But we didn’t know that in history this farm next to us had been the largest slave-holding plantation in our region from the early 1700s until 1865. And we didn’t know but would come to learn after the purchase, that the few acres we bought actually held the graves of some of those slaves, at least 25 of them. 25 African-Americans. 25 men, women, and children. 25 human beings. 25 Image-Bearers. 25 brothers and sisters. 25 Christians probably. 25 brothers and sisters who I’ll likely meet one day.
Soon after we made the move, we had begun to hear local lore about the slave cemetery on our land, but few folks knew exactly where it was. Finally, on a winter’s day after all the weeds died down and the overgrown brush lost its leaves, I stumbled across the field stones standing perpendicular to the ground, the depressions in the soil, and a broken tombstone laying flat and half-buried, blank with no inscription. Then at the county library, we found an official record of this site–informally named “Sam Moore’s Slave Cemetery”– then more records, and we met more local elders and historians who knew about it, and it was confirmed. This was the slave cemetery. On our land. So that inconceivable question came right to us.
What would you do if you were given the bodies of the victims of a long and violent oppression perpetrated by your own people?
Over the past two years especially, I’ve studied again the history of slavery in Virginia and throughout our country, and studied again the slave codes, and the waste of life that was our Civil War, and then the Jim Crow laws, and the ‘separate but equal’, and the laws and practices set up through most of the 1900s to keep black people set apart and subjugated, and the Civil Rights Movement, and the brutal racism throughout the South especially. It’s been dark and sickening.
Meanwhile, this past year-and-a-half or so has been gut-wrenching while watching the compounding effects of the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and Eric Garner in Manhattan, and Tamir Rice in Cleveland, and Walter Scott in Charleston, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, and the Reverend Clementa Pinckney and 8 others Charleston, etc. The list goes on and it’s a long list, longer by the day, a list that finds its roots all the way back to slavery, “America’s Original Sin”, whose bitter fruit our country still tastes every day in the lives of too many.
And in the midst of this, we were given stewardship of a forgotten slave graveyard in rural Virginia. What do you do? Well, this is what we want to do.
We want to recognize the dignity of those black brothers and sisters who lay in this soil whose dignity was never recognized while they lived. We want to honor as best as we can those who were worthy of honor simply by being human beings, those who never received that their lifetime. They were people, as valuable as my own children.
We want to grieve and lament what these men and women represent, generations of a people whose lives were never what God intended for them, who never had a chance to be fully who God had made them to be.
We want to maintain and affirm our faith that, though evil exists and persists and racism and its’ system remain powerful, God has called a people–Christians–to be agents of reconciliation and repair and justice. We want to affirm that evil–past and present–is not the end of the story, because of Jesus Christ.
After a long, shared effort with the local community, we will do this and more on Saturday April 30 from 2pm-4pm, when we will dedicate “The Corhaven Graveyard”. I invite you join us at Corhaven for this sober and substantive occasion and event. It’s a beginning, and an important one. You can read more about The Corhaven Graveyard project, The Repentance Project, and find directions to Corhaven at www.inthecoracle.org. I’d also like to recommend that you prayerfully watch “12 Years A Slave”, voted by historians as the most historically accurate film in recent years.