Honoring the Ancestors

Bare frozen ground yielded the tip of one stone and then others, most probably set in place two hundred years ago.  In the winter of 2000-2001, the archaeologists who excavated the wooded plot adjacent to the visitors parking area at Monticello helped to provide conclusive answers to questions long asked by visitors.  Where were the slaves buried at Monticello?  Does anyone know? As the archaeological dig progressed, patterns of grave shafts became testaments to the African-American burial practices of enslaved Monticello residents.

On the late afternoon of October 6, 2001, an autumnal breeze moved through the pine and hardwood Burial Ground Ceremony 2001grove and the tent next to it.  The lyrics of a church choir’s song followed the notes of a trumpet player.  Thomas Jefferson Foundation (TJF) President Daniel P. Jordan explained the occasion and an African priest blessed the land, acknowledging people of the past, present, and future.  NAACP President Julian Bond, in his remarks for the occasion,  observed that the enslaved had been buried here as property but on this day “we honor them as people.”

The more than 250 people present recited the names of those who lived and worked in bondage at Monticello.  In silent tribute, they then placed long-stemmed roses in an old-fashioned iron pot, symbolic of ones used to mute the sounds of the private gatherings of the enslaved. Many attendees wrote messages to those being honored and recognized on this occasion.  Small white cards with expressions of gratitude, respect, and love were buried in the graveyard immediately following the ceremony.  Clusters of people lingered, measuring the events that had occurred, and then went to the mountaintop for a reception on the West Lawn.

THE FIRST AFRICAN-AMERICAN INSTITUTIONS

Archaeological investigations have identified this site as a slave burial ground.  Men, women, and children of Monticello’s African-American community are Area of slave burialsburied here.  Almost four hundred persons lived in slavery at Monticello over a sixty-year-period and well over forty graves are estimated to be within this area.  Some of the graves have un-inscribed fieldstones at the head or foot, but most have no surviving markers.  Although the names of Monticello’s enslaved residents are known, it has not been possible to identify where particular individuals were buried.  No graves were disturbed in the course of the archaeological investigations.

African-American graveyards are considered the first black institutions in North America, and were expressions of the separateness slavery created.  This burial ground became a sacred space that reinforced the human ties that bound together the members of Monticello’s slave community.

THE ALL IMPORTANT QUESTION OF NAMES

Historians of the African-American experience have sought to recognize patterns in the naming practices of enslaved people.  At Monticello children were most frequently named for parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts.  The almost four hundred names on the program for the Slave Burial Ground commemoration confirm this.

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