Common box turtles, with their ornate yellow etching, love to eat ripe mayapple fruits. I recently saw one nestled near purple coneflowers in the tribute garden at the Corhaven Graveyard. What many do not realize is that turtles can live as many as 100 years and usually remain near the same location in which they were born. When I consider this, I look at my Terrapene friend with new appreciation. What might this animal’s grandmother have witnessed that I have only experienced like a thin place? The most important aspect of Corhaven Graveyard is as a sacred space, honoring formerly enslaved African-Americans and inviting the community to experience personal transformation by placing a stone on the cairn table, tolling the bell, writing on the chalkboard, or settling on a bench to consider closely the human lives, buried along a fencerow—often in an unmarked grave—and denied basic constitutional rights because they were regarded as property. This place is a reminder.
Corhaven Graveyard is a call. Engaging events during the first half of 2017 have proffered opportunities for learning about the history of slavery, as well as providing space for personal and communal healing. The Corhaven Graveyard Book Club gained a deeper understanding of the institution of slavery by reading Solomon Northup’s 1853 autobiography, “Twelve Years a Slave.” Together, on May 27, the book club and members of the community walked the DC kidnapping route, experienced the moving Newseum exhibit “Civil Rights at 50,” visited the African American Civil War Memorial on U-Street, and ate at Ben’s Chili Bowl. On June 24, they viewed “12 Years a Slave” at Alamo Drafthouse and Cinema in Winchester, engaging in a Circle Process discussion that expressed the importance of having more communal opportunities for such sharing and healing. You can be part of this journey by accessing the book study online.
Desmond Tutu, who led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission following South African apartheid, reminds us: “It may be… that race relations in the United States will not improve significantly until Native Americans and African Americans get the opportunity to tell their stories and reveal the pain that sits in the pit of their stomachs as a baneful legacy of dispossession and slavery… [T]he act of telling one’s story has a cathartic, healing effect” (No Future Without Forgiveness, 1997:279). Corhaven Graveyard is creating space for exactly this. Reconcilers for Change invites you into intentional community: continuing to engage in understanding on racial and social justice issues through movies and book discussions, as well as positive community experiences in which we work together for the common good. Beginning September 17, the online book club will read about the lives that experienced the great migration in America as told in the Pulitzer-prize winning book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” by Isabel Wilkerson. On September 23rd, there will be a pilgrimage to the Corhaven Graveyard. On the evenings of November 11 and December 9, we’ll watch movies in the woodshop at Corhaven and engage in meaningful discussion.
Corhaven Graveyard is also a symbol. In late spring, a Falls Church Girl Scouts troop helped master gardeners install a monarch waystation in the tribute space at the graveyard. A variety of milkweed and various nectar plants were installed to provide a place for monarch butterflies to thrive. Such signs of hope also point to the vision for Corhaven Graveyard as being a part of a community transformed by racial reconciliation. The waystation has been nationally registered. On August 26, members of the community are invited to participate in a “Pathway for Peace” Workshop, during which a flagstone walk and similar features will be installed in the monarch garden.
Hope. Peace. Community. These are fruits of reconciliation. As Shenandoah County Historical Society noted when honoring Corhaven Graveyard with a 2017 Excellence in Historic Preservation award in May: “…the very scope of the restoration and preservation of the historic African American slave cemetery… was completed by a caring community working together for the common good.” In considering these things, I imagine the common box turtle in the tribute garden, patiently plodding toward its goal, and I take heart. The journey is as important as the destination, and in many ways more-so. As Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
Director of Corhaven Graveyard