when the dust clears

Words about and images of matters political, social, and military

Postcards from Elmerton, Brian and Erin, October 4, 2013

with 5 comments

Someone cuts the grass, though he or she (or they) doesn’t clean up the clippings, which had gathered into little brown mats on the upended gravestones when Erin and I visited Elmerton Cemetery last week.

We’d driven by before, even stopped the car and peeked. But we’d never really taken the whole place in.

There’s no sign that bears the name of the graveyard, which is smack across the street from a bus depot. But there is one dedicated to the cemetery’s most prominent inhabitant, Mary S. Peake.

Peake was remarkable. A free African American, she taught black children secretly before the Civil War, because to educate them publicly was illegal. During the war, she opened a school in Union-held territory.

Missionary Lewis Lockwood wrote a short book about her, The Colored Teacher of Fort Monroe. He tells us that Peake inculcated her students with Scripture and “considered singing an important part of a right education.” Lockwood seems to have been quite enamored of Mrs. Peake. She died at 39 of tuberculosis.

Peake’s headstone and those of her family members are set apart from the others in a fenced-in plot at Elmerton. They’re in good condition compared with others. Many have clearly been toppled, some smashed—by human hands—which is striking and sad.

Two years ago, the Virginia Department of Transportation published a survey of sites that might be affected, directly or indirectly, by construction to improve Interstate 64 and the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel. That survey included Elmerton. These sections of the report are devastating:

Although a cemetery for the first generation of African Americans following emancipation, including Mary Peake, the cemetery suffered from decades of neglect during the twentieth century. In an effort to restore the cemetery, volunteers dedicated time to clear overgrowth and debris, sadly causing significant damages as well. While the cemetery was established during a crucial time in African American history, and contains the remains of an important individual, the cemetery is in extreme poor condition, and historic African American landmarks with a higher degree of integrity exist within the region. As such, the resource is recommended Not Eligible for individual listing in the NRHP [National Register of Historic Places] under Criteria A–C.

I suppose this means African Americans need only a few landmarks to our history and achievements, ones “with a higher degree of integrity,” chosen by state agencies. Let the others crumble and disappear.

When a place such as this is no one’s responsibility, it’s easy and cheap to say it’s everyone’s—Hampton city, the state of Virginia, regular citizens, black folk. Like me. But if it were, Elmerton wouldn’t be in a shattered and neglected state.

5 Responses

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  1. Very very sad state of affairs.
    Would help understanding if NHRP section that denies the application were published and discussed in some detail. Then perhaps it could create a groundswell to force an offer of some kind of accommodation to the tragedy.

    Reinhold Beuer-Tajovsky

    2013/10/08 at 21:55

    • I’m looking into it, Reinhold. If you’re interested in looking, too, that would be great.


      2013/10/08 at 22:08

  2. Heartbreaking. If only I could say I was surprised that the value of our history could be dismissed so cavalierly.

    Karen Palmer

    2013/10/08 at 22:18

  3. Thank you for this post and for the others you have written. I love old cemeteries, and this one seems so worth saving — so full of history and life. So glad you are capturing this and bringing it to light. Good job, Brian.

    Allison Slater Tate

    2013/10/08 at 22:53

  4. Thanks for posting this. I too have a WordPress blog with genealogy for the Peninsula area and I also love old cemeteries (my husband happens to work for Automattic who created WordPress). Many years ago I took pictures of all the stones I could in Elmerton and posted them to findagrave. I was appalled by the cemetery condition and wanted to preserve it the best I could. At the time I photographed it, to the left still had a building that they’ve since torn down and many of the stones couldn’t be photographed due to them being covered in brush. After looking through your photographs, you have taken pictures of several of them I could not get to. Do you have a findagrave account? If not, so you mind if I post a few of your pictures to their memorial pages (I’d credit you of course). Here is the page for Elmerton on findagrave.


    And in case you are interested, here is a link to my blog.




    2015/01/07 at 13:45

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