Locating and Researching
Historic African-American Graveyards

I locate, map, and study the communities associated with historic graveyards. I focus on sites in central Virginia. Since 2001, I have mapped over two hundred cemeteries, dating between the 1780s and 1980s. Maps of the cemeteries and photographs of each gravestone (including transcriptions) is available on separate cemetery database. My research demonstrated that African-American cemeteries are an invaluable resource that provide genealogical and cultural information.

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Black Cemeteries as Outdoor Museums

Read more about the cultural traditions that are preserved in the epitaphs and mortuary rituals associated with historic African American cemeteries in my book: Hidden History: African American Cemeteries in Central Virginia (University of Virginia Press, 2014). Or read more about why we should visit these sacred sites by following a Facebook page dedicated to black graveyards in Virginia.


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Preserving Black Graveyards

Because many stones in these historic cemeteries lack inscriptions and utilize locally available materials, the sites often go unnoticed and are occasionally removed or inadvertently destroyed by property owners. One of the goals of my project is to document these historic cemeteries so that their location becomes part of the public record.

World War I in Virginia

April 2017, the centennial anniversary of the United States' entry into World War I, is fast approaching. Here in Virginia tens of thousands of men were drafted and several thousand lost their lives from combat, disease (most notably influenza), and training accidents. Although the last living Virginian veterans of The Great War only passed away within the last two decades, the names and sacrifices of WWI veterans have largely been forgotten. There are dozens of historic and superficial reasons why WWI is not well understood or even remembered by many Americans. And yet almost every county and independent city in Virginia has at least one WWI memorial. Many of these memorials take the form of statues or monuments that list the names of the men and women who served and/or lost their lives during the war. Some WWI memorials are subtle, a building named in honor of the dead (like a "Memorial Gym") or a stained glass window in a house of worship. On a separate site, I am working with colleagues to actively collect photographs and descriptions of these memorials.

Visit the "World War I Memorials in Virginia" website.

Studying Enslaved Communities in the Virginian Piedmont

Since 2001, I have researched African Americans who lived at Sweet Briar (in Amherst County, Virginia), first as enslaved laborers on the Sweet Briar Plantation and, later, as employees of Sweet Briar College. This work spans the decades from the Colonial Era (around 1780) to the 100th anniversary of the College's founding (2001). Visit a pinterest board, "African American Roots at Sweet Briar" dedicated to sharing this hidden history. And a blog which will share genealogical data about the enslaved families and their descendants.

Archaeological Survey at an Ante-bellum Plantation

Between 2002 and 2005 I surveyed about 2000 acres on the campus of Sweet Briar College. In the 18th Century the land was divided among dozens of Amherst County farmers. In the 19th Century Elijah Fletcher began buying up land around his newly purchased farm (the Sweet Briar Plantation). Assisted by dozens of Sweet Briar undergraduates and University of Virginia graduate students, we walked north/south grids and located over 400 sites.

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An archaeological survey of the Sweet Briar Plantation

In 2002, I began a survey of approximately 3,000 acres belonging, today, to Sweet Briar College. In the 19th century, this land belonged to dozens of land owners and was home to European, African,and Native American groups. In the 1840s, Elijah Fletcher began buying land around his newly purchased "Sweet Briar Plantation." By the time his daughter inherited the property (in 1860), there were 1000s of contiguous acres. I invited Sweet Briar undergraduates and University of Virginia graduate students to join me in a survey of what remains today.

Archaeological Sectors

I devised the twenty sectors below to provide manageable units to survey in a day or two with half-a-dozen people. The exterior boundaries of the map correspond to the Sweet Briar College property line.

Between 2002-2005 we located over 450 sites. They ranged from wooden barns to pet cemeteries; from old fences to pop-top beer cans; and from cabin ruins to broken chamberpots.

The aerial photograph of campus illustrates part of the survey area; part wooded, part open field. The small red dot indicates the location of the ante-bellum plantation house (today the home of the President of the College).

An old Barn in the woods, just north of Williams Creek.

The recent past: the Outing Cabin Outhouse. Update: after this photos was taken, the outhouse burned to the ground and has since been rebuilt

Poor Farms in Albemarle County

In the 18th and 19th centuries, communities dealt with poverty by placing the indigent (and often insane or socially unwelcome) in Poor Farms (also referred as The Poor House). Work is on-going to locate and document the farms in Albemarle and Amherst Counties. Each county had several poor farms between the early 19th century and the mid-20th century (when the farms were closed and replaced by other relief measures, such as social security and welfare).

Poor Farms in Virginia

Almost every county in Virginia had a "poor farm" or "almshouse" in the 19th century. While few buildings survive today, residents of the poorhouse can often be found in the federal census. Below is an entry from 1860 for Patrick County where William Critz was the "keeper of the poor house" and his wife assisted him in "administering to the afflicted."

“It is a melancholy truth that even great men have their poor their poor relations."
-Chapter 28, Charles Dickens, Bleak House

Most Poor Farms were closed between 1930-50s. Above, the ruined, Albemarle County Poor Farm

Poor farms are usually found in rural areas, but some cities built asylums or poorhouses. Seen above, the Richmond Poor Farm

Rural Poor Farms are more difficult to locate, but old maps are an invaluable resource. In the 1930s USGS Map above, we see the location of the 29S Albemarle County Poor Farm. Labeled here as "County Farm."

Segregated Schools

Between 2007 and 2009, I studied Rosenwald Schools in Virginia and created an online database that provided information about the hundreds of these schools in the state. The Rosenwald schools were financed jointly by Julius Rosenwald (co-owner of Sears and Roebuck) and local communities between 1917 and 1932. Even earlier, Julius Rosenwald was approached by Booker T Washington to use funds donated to the Tuskegee Institute to construct six schools. Impressed with the results, Rosenwald set up the Julius Rosenwald Fund to build schools for African American children. In some communities these schools were the first formal school house, in others they replaced dilapidated and unsafe structures. In each case, this program encouraged communities to contribute to the construction of their school and provided one of over a dozen architectural models. These models, similar to house kits sold by Sears, were clean, affordable, and carefully designed to produce a healthy learning environment. This included adequate light, ventilation, separate outhouses, coatrooms, and quality blackboards and desks.

Historic Monacan Communities in Virginia

In the fall of 2007 I co-curated an exhibition on Native Americans in Virginia titled "Family Portraits: Virginian Indians at the Turn of the Twentieth Century." Instead of focusing on their pre-historic past, Rebecca Massie-Lane and I used reproductions of 20th Century photographs to illustrate the continued cultural heritage of Virginian Indians. In the spring of 2008 Sweet Briar College donated the photographs to the Virginian Foundation for the Humanities for use in traveling exhibitions. My research is on-going into the 19th-century connections between the Monacan Nation and the Sweet Briar Plantation. Visit the Exhibition Website.

Local History

As an anthropologist archaeologist, some of the most powerful material that I work with is locally based: historic ruins in the woods, architectural embellishments on art deco buildings, old roadways, and scattered artifacts. Between 2007 and 2012, I hosted a blog called "locohistory," which stood for "local county history." I focused on two counties in Virginia: Albemarle and Amherst. The semi-monthly posts highlighted forgotten personages, hidden house sites and cemeteries, and architectural gems. Click here to visit Locohistory.org

Excavating at an Assyrian city

I direct micro-archaeological research at the site to better understand everyday life of non-elites at a fortified outpost of the Assyrian Empire. Micro-archaeology (also referred to as micro-debris research) involves the study of small artifacts, under 1 cm in size. These unintentionally discarded artifacts reveal daily habits: the lithic debris from sharpening stone tools, the chipped ceramic sherds from storage vessels, or the faunal remains from cuts of meat.

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Assyrian Research and Micro-Archaeology

I have been working in Turkey (the northern edge of ancient Mesopotamia) since 1995. I have worked at Early Bronze Age Sites(Titrish Hoyuk, Kazane) and Iron Age Sites (Ziyaret Tepe), as well as Gordion, Hacinebi Tepe, and Tell Brak (in Syria). My focus has been studying domestic architecture and practice. For my dissertation (University of Michigan 2001) I developed a new technique for studying everyday life in households: micro-debris analysis. Below I outline the technique and discuss results from several sites.

Micro-Archaeology/Micro-Debris Analysis Method


The rationale behind collecting and analyzing artifacts under 10mm in size is that smaller objects are more likely than large items to remain where they were dropped or lost. Accordingly, sediment samples are collected from primary contexts in order to analyze the count and weight distribution of micro-artifacts. Samples are also taken from secondary contexts and sterile sediments in order to provide a control against which the density of primary contexts can be measured. Micro-artifacts are often the direct result of processes, i.e. the making of stone tools, the preparation of food, the place where pots were used and broken, and so give direct information about the activities which were carried out in those rooms rather than about where larger objects (such as complete tools and pots) were either stored or discarded. Desirable features to sample include: surfaces (both interior room floors and exterior "empty areas"), streets, hearths, middens, and vessels containing sediments. When time and space permits, individual rooms are gridded and samples are randomly selected for analysis. These sediment samples are wet sieved and micro-artifacts collected from the heavy fraction. The types of artifacts recovered include sherds, bones (animal and human), lithics (debitage and tools), beads, clay sealings, pieces of plaster and burnt brick, bitumen, and metal fragments.

Why Size Matters

While architectural remains and associated features are increasingly well understood, the debris left by activities performed within them are usually disturbed and often discarded far from the loci of activity. Where the large finds may be scavenged, discarded, or curated in periods of abandonment, smaller debris is often swept into corners or trampled into the surface of a floor or courtyard in an ancient community. Schiffer (1983: 679) referred to this phenomenon as the McKellar Hypothesis: even if an activity area is periodically cleaned, smaller remains are more likely to become primary refuse, while larger items are removed in the process of cleaning (especially if they constitute a safety threat, such as stone tool debris). This premise is the rationale behind collecting small artifacts.

For an example of a micro-archaeological study of debris within an Early Bronze Age Household, click here >

Between 2002 and 2007, I was the Assistant Director at Ziyaret Tepe (in southeastern Turkey). The site was a fortified Assyrian City in the northern regions of ancient Mesopotamia. Visit the Ziyaret Tepe project website to learn more about the excavations.