Colonial Williamsburg mapping historic Black cemetery

Williamsburg

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (WAVY) — The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is helping a historic Black church preserve its history for future congregants.

Back in the fall, the foundation donated $40,000 toward clean-up efforts after one of the members reached out for help.

Oak Grove Baptist Church is one of the older Black churches in the community. Colette Roots grew up attending the church and visited the cemetery off Rochambeau Drive near Interstate 64 with her mother.

“From the age of 10, my mother always brought me out here four times a year to upkeep the cemetery,” she said back in the fall.

Roots told 10 On Your Side many of her relatives are buried there, including her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

So, when she took her 96-year-old uncle, who was also a deacon in the church and has since died since the previous story aired, to visit the cemetery on Mother’s Day, the two were dismayed by downed trees.

But not anymore.

“To know it’s finished, this is making our hearts cheerful,” she said. “The unmarked graves out here, they’re a part of us. So, we’re looking forward to digging a little deeper and finding out who they are.”

The finding of unmarked graves is just another thing among a list of items that Colonial Williamsburg has stepped up to help.

The foundation put up a fence, asphalted a driveway, and removed trees as a part of the cleanup efforts.

This week, archaeologists were out to map the graveyard to be able to present the congregation with a map of who all is buried in the cemetery.

“Colonial Williamsburg owns the property surrounding Oak Grove. We wanted to be good neighbors and so we’ve been engaged with helping to clean up the cemetery, put up a fence. We thought as archaeologists, how can we help with the efforts. One thing we do as archaeologists is we do maps of things and record accounts. We thought this would be a good tool for the church in the future so we decided to take a couple of days and do that with them,” said Jack Gary, who is the director of archaeology for Colonial Williamsburg.

Colonial Williamsburg gifted the land, where the cemetery sits back to the church in 2003.

The land was originally bought by church members in 1901 and also including a building where services were held.

In 1914, the congregation moved to its current location but still used the cemetery for burials and still does.

However, in the 1943, the United States Government took the land to develop Camp Peary. Roots says during that time, the church had to ask for permission to have burials.

In 1975, the government and Colonial Williamsburg did a property swap for 213 acres in the area, which led to the foundation obtaining the land.

Gary says being out and documenting this history is a way to learn and understand the shared history in the community.

“As an organization tasked with recording our history, we better get started with the history in where we work,” he said.

Descendants like Roots, Lynell Matthews, and Janice Mitchell were also able to talk with Gary and his team to pass on the stories they grew up learning.

“There’s some powerful stories of the people buried here,” he said. “It’s really rewarding to help out and here are these stories and we’re trusted enough to tell these stories. That’s what’s so fun for us.”

Roots says many families who are still in Williamsburg have ancestors buried in the cemetery.

“It all seems to finally come together after so many years. I’ve helped blow leaves and pick up sticks. This is where my mom has her final resting place. I have to come see here and things are looking better for future generations. Like she said, it’s overwhelming,” said Matthews.

The team from Colonial Williamsburg says the map should take one to two weeks to complete.

But, this is only the start of preserving history for Oak Grove.

“That church has been out there since 1907 but it’s been called the ‘Lost Church in Time’. It needs so much renovation. It’s over $100,000,” she said.

Roots says the church was not able to get a loan from the bank because their congregation is so small so they’ll be asking for their sister churches in the area to help collect donations.

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