African American cemetery to be restored in Lunenburg County

Published 8:00 am Thursday, March 16, 2023

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A Lunenburg landowner has partnered with the local chapter of the NAACP to restore and preserve a late 19th-century African American cemetery.

Steve Wise said when he discovered the cemetery on his land, it was completely overgrown and neglected. “So much so that I had trouble finding it..” Wise said. “All I could see were the tips of a couple of field stones poking out above the brush and leaves.”

One of many unreliable grave markers in the Varick Cemetery.

The Varick Cemetery is located in Lunenburg County, hidden in the woods off Mill Creek Drive just north of Varick Chapel Road.

According to Wise, the Commonwealth of Virginia has registered the cemetery as an African American cemetery dating from the late 19th century to the early to mid-20th century.

Wise said currently, little is known about the people buried here.

“We believe that the remains of these people deserve to be treated with unforgotten dignity, respect, and reverence,” Wise said. “We believe that Virginia law stating that cemeteries are the property of the landowner is, in this case, inappropriate, and instead, needs to belong to the community, and a forgotten cemetery should belong, be maintained, and be made available to the local community.”

For Wise, after he found the cemetery in such bad shape, not only did he feel it should be cleaned up and belong to the community, he said he did not feel right about Virginia law stating that since the cemetery sits on his land, it is his responsibility.

“For me, the real story is who should be responsible for maintaining the graves of those who have passed on within our community?” Wise said. “This was the first question I had to ask myself when I discovered the cemetery on my land. From everyone I talked to, the answer was that I, as the landowner, am responsible. The idea that here we are, well into the 21st century, and that it’s implied that I have ownership over the people buried on my land made me feel very uncomfortable.”

As an amateur genealogist, who always enjoyed visiting cemeteries, Wise said taking care of the cemetery would be easy for him. Still, he is concerned about what may happen to the cemetery once he is no longer the landowner.

“I’m happy to maintain it for as long as possible,” he said. But there’s always a risk that it would again be neglected once I am not the landowner.”

According to Wise, in the beginning, he reached out to a few local groups and churches about taking on this project but didn’t get any traction. “Then, I contacted the Lunenburg branch of the NAACP, and I explained to them that I am passionate about restoring and maintaining the cemetery, but that I’m equally passionate about it being a local community effort,” Wise said. “I explained that they would have my full cooperation as the landowner and that I would be involved as little or as much as they wished.”

From there, the brainstorming and putting plans into action began.

Wise said the group’s vision for the cemetery is to build a 220’ trail from the road and then allow a public easement on his land to use the trail.

According to Wise, while Virginia law allows access to cemeteries for family members or for genealogical research, a public easement will make it easier for the community to honor, respect, and care for their ancestral neighbors’ final resting place.

“We are currently trying to raise money for a land survey to get the easement,” Wise said.

The group also plans to raise funds to have 120’ of fencing installed around the cemetery, plant ground cover to prevent erosion, do historical research on the people who are buried there, purchase a monument in their honor, and conduct long-term care and maintenance.

“Finally, we plan once again to consecrate the cemetery in a public religious ceremony,” Wise said. “People place monuments at grave sites because they want to be remembered. Even if those monuments are nothing more than field stones stuck into the ground, these people lived here in Kenbridge. We know they were people of faith from how they were buried. They were people who helped to make the community what it is today. They were our neighbors. For that reason, I feel strongly that the resting place of these Kenbridge citizens should be maintained and honored by the community.”

A GofundMe page has been created to help fund the Varick African American Restoration Project. It can be found right here.