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The Hidden History of African-American Burial Sites in the Antebellum South


Enslaved people used codes to mark graves on plantation grounds.

In modern-day Altavista, Virginia, a town that covers 5 square miles of what was the first English colony in North America, sits the Avoca Museum. The former residence of Colonel Charles Lynch, a politician and American Revolutionary Patriot, it was built in 1901 and is now a Virginia Historic Landmark. Beyond the stately home, whose porch and eaves are marked by flourishes derived from the British-born Queen Anne style, is a dirt clearing within a patch of aged oak trees. Upon closer look, there’s a constellation of irregularly shaped rocks placed with curious precision—some squat, some narrow.

The history of this terra firma is largely hidden, both because of its obscured distance from the main home and the largely subterranean information it holds. This patch of land is a graveyard of the enslaved African-Americans who lived on the Lynch’s property. The rocks—which serve as headstones—reveal a secret yet conscious coding system that the living slave community designed for their deceased. And on former plantations across the country, similar grave markers have been discovered over time, offering clues to what life (and death) was like for black Americans in the Antebellum period.

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Tags: #anthropology, #burialpractices, #history
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