Sacred Place – Saving the Sammons Cemetery in Charlottesville, VA

The graveyard sits in a copse of trees surrounded by a deteriorating stone wall.  Most who know these farms well know it’s there, but I don’t think anyone really visits except me.  My favorite person from this place is buried there. His name is Primus, and I think he can hear me.

In the late afternoons sometimes, I walk up and talk to the folks who are buried in the undulating earth, most of their graves unmarked by any stone except, perhaps, a two pieces of slate stuck vertical in the ground, one at head and one at foot, and long away worn down or washed clean of names.  But three stones bear words, gifts cut into rock – Ben Creasy, the carpenter, Jesse Nicholas, the stonemason, and Primus, the foreman. – from my (hopefully) forthcoming book You Will Not Be Forgotten

This cemetery is one of my sacred places, a space where I feel at rest and at peace, where the air moves softer on my face, where I whisper.  Eula Minor

So, when I heard that another cemetery was in danger of being destroyed just up the road in Charlottesville, my throat tightened up.  The Sammons Family Cemetery is a historic burial ground that holds the graves of several prominent African-American families in the area, including the Sammons themselves, a free family of color.  The place is important because of the history tied to the community, and it’s important because these are people whose stories are linked to this particular piece of land, this community.

The cemetery was just recently “re-discovered,”  and now there is an effort from Sammons descendants and other community members to prevent the exhumation and relocation of the people buried there as the city of Charlottesville begins to build its new bypass through this land.

I care deeply about this place, having not even been there yet. I care because this is a part of our history as Americans, a part we don’t know much of yet, a part that has been kept silent for generations – often purposefully, sometimes unintentionally. The history of black people in this country, and particularly in the South, where at least half of our history IS black history, is crucial to our understanding of what we have come from and through and of where we are now.

But even more, this place should be preserved because it is sacred. Here, the stories of people’s lives as they have shaped their bodies are rooted into the ground.  Here, we can stand and see the rivers and the hills, the trees that these people would have seen.  Here, their stories took in air.

In our society that is so transient, that is so digitized, that is so physical mutable, cemeteries are grounding forces. They are holy.

And for the Sammons, for the other families there, for us, we need them to stay that way.

If you’d like to help the efforts to save this cemetery, please read the history of the people and place at the Central Virginia History Researchers’ website, and please, like the Facebook Page for the Sammons Cemetery as well.  Thank you.

What physical places are sacred to you? Why those places?


  • Joan

    Hi Andi, I’ve been following you for a while and enjoy your posts. I live in Charlottesville and didn’t know about this cemetary and pray it can be saved. There is still hope that that bypass won’t go through, but we’ll see.

    Where are you located?

    Joan Rough

    • Andi

      Hi Joan – it’s always nice to meet a neighbor. I live in Lovingston . . . just down 29 from C’ville. Thanks for asking, and yes, this cemetery is so important.

  • Lee Tilson

    Writing a comment on this post has been very difficult. The writing and emotion are powerful and elegant. Sharing my own thoughts about my “sacred places” seems to require me to return to my contrarian impulses that would detract from the conversation. I have failed to find a non-contrarian strategy. The rest of this is based on the assumption that contrarian responses are better than nothing. Let me explore some of these impulses and then make a comment on the cemetery you discuss.

    When I explore my concepts, I find one value. People matter. While open to the possibility that things other than people have some intrinsic value, I have not found it necessary to go beyond people as the source of value.

    Many places have special, perhaps “sacred,” value to me: the places I have lived, the places that were special to my family and very close friends, and some places that are important to me for other reasons. What seems sacred to me are my feelings and the feelings of others, not the places. What are our histories? What events and people have been important in our lives? I am driven to the conclusion that people and their feelings, not places and locations, have intrinsic value.

    Ironically, both parents donated their bodies to science. There was no casket at their funerals. There are no cemeteries of stones to visit. They never asked how we might feel about it. They decided that donating their bodies to science was the right thing to do. We don’t even have a place to visit. All that is left are newspaper articles, books, and stories. Perhaps if I had a place to visit, I could explore my feelings about whether such places could be sacred.

    I don’t like returning to my hometown where I grew up and they died. Everything is changed. Our house is painted a different color. The schools have expanded to the point that the buildings cannot be recognized. None of the restaurants or gas stations are the same. Everything has changed. It hurts.

    Kierkegaard offered a scientific approach to self knowledge: change your circumstances and see what remains constant. But to appreciate change, there must be something that is constant that is one’s vantage point. It seems that nothing in my life is constant. My father brought us to see Roger Maris hit home run number 58 in 1961 at Tiger Stadium. My wife and I live in a house exactly one mile north of the old stadium. The best memory of my life is gone. My favorite restaurant in Detroit, Cardinali’s, was demolished. So many places I have lived and work are gone. Nothing is reliable. Nothing.

    The only that comes to my mind when I think about “sacred places” is one I have not visited: the Acropolis in Athens. What makes it special are the special people who gave birth to so many of our ideas and values. Yet is it the place that has value or the ideas that survive intact? What matters are the people.

    As a country, we seem to forget that people matter. We forgot that people matter when we created slavery. We forget that people matter when we invade distant countries. We forget that people matter when deciding national policy. We forget that people matter when we drive past a homeless person without sharing a nickel. We forget that people matter when we invest in the stock market instead of food kitchens.

    Who is buried at the Sammons Family Cemetery? What did they do? What did they feel. What changes did they make in the world? Did they have children? Did they love? Did they have special talents? What can we learn about them? What lessons for our lives can they still teach us? Were they slaves? Did they have insights into human nature to share, insights that can help us today? Certainly they must have. What were they?

    Should the cemetery be preserved because it is sacred? Whether the cemetery is sacred, the people buried there certainly were. They were people. They mattered as much as any of us, as much as the State of Virginia, as much as anyone who is employed by the Virginia Department of Transportation, and certainly as much as anyone who wants to drive on a freeway exit built on the land where the cemetery stands.

    We cannot preserve all of our history. People and buildings come and go. The world changes. In order to make sense of the change, and to make sense of ourselves, some aspects of the old must be preserved. We cannot understand or appreciate change without a vantage point from which to observe and study what has remained constant and what has not. If we matter, then we must be given an opportunity to understand our history. Until we understand the history of that cemetery and the people who lived there, we cannot make an intelligent decision about the future of that real estate and whether the cemetery should be preserved.

    The lessons that can be learned from this cemetery are not just important lessons about these African Americans and how their ancestors survived the evils of slavery. Lessons that are at least as important include understanding our human capacity for arrogance, for ever believing that any of us ever has the right to view another as property. The lessons buried in the cemetery are fundamental lessons about human nature, how humans are seduced into doing such evil things as believing that they can own other human beings, how human beings survive brutal oppression, and how humanity can still survive in such circumstances.

    Whether this place is sacred, I do not know. The lessons that can be learned from the cemetery certainly are. Destroying it before those lessons are learned is an affront to common sense and morality. Destroying the cemetery is an expression that the people buried there, their ancestors, and the slaveowners who brought their ancestors to America have no value.

    People matter.

    • Andi

      Beautifully said, Lee. People do matter.

  • Erica Caple James

    Dear Andi, Joan, and Lee,
    Thank you for writing. Your thoughts provide invaluable support for our effort to protect and preserve our ancestors. My hope is that this struggle will help all of us to remember and commemorate difficult histories in our country and to honor the struggles of just so many persons to survive and thrive amidst adversity.
    Best wishes,

    • Andi

      Thank you for your work, Erica.