Women in the South (of a Cemetery)

Touring St. John’s Cemetery creates more questions than it answers. The majority of its stones are left, eroding and falling apart. The words that were once inscribed on them have been worn away with time. There are some modern stones or monuments, some intentionally well preserved ones (most often the ones by the church), and some that do still, fortunately, have distinguishable words, dates and sentences. Upon first walking through the cemetery, it seems that all of the stones have been placed randomly. There certainly are no rows formed, there are some clusters of multiple gravestones from varying, wide spacing years, and there are some bald patches. Most of the stones face east. However, when observing and noting the names, sentences, and dates that are distinguishable on the gravestones, there are patterns that can be found. For example, the names Thomas, Daniel, and Mary were common even then. However, most notable to me was the disproportionate number of women and people from Ireland in the southern part of the churchyard. While other gravestones note the places that the deceased come from, they are sporadic in their location in the cemetery. In this southern part of the cemetery, there are fewer gravestones with discernable inscriptions of men’s names, and a large number with discernable inscriptions of the origin of the deceased, specifically Ireland.

Daniel Isabella

These photos illustrate the chest tomb of Isabella Neilson from Donegal, Ireland (buried in the furthers corner of the southern corner, right next to the fence) and Daniel McDermoth from Dunnegol, Ireland.

As evidenced in similarities in style, orientation, messages, and dates on the stone, the Irish and the women were not ostracized from the community. They still conformed to typical death practices, and probably shared religious beliefs with the others that are buried in the cemetery. However, if the most faithful, religious, and prestigious people were buried on the northeastern side of the cemetery close to the church, then the southern placement with distance from the church would indicate that the people buried under these stones were less faithful or prestigious – or they were considered to be worth less within their community in comparison to the equally gender separated stones without specification of birthplace.

Ultimately, it is clear that there were some racist feelings against Irish men and women, and there were some strong feelings of the subordination of women. Because of the disproportionate number of gravestones that were in a small way “hidden away” of these two classes, it is a reasonable to believe that, while they were still memorialized and remembered through the stones, they were not something that the church wanted to show off by putting in a spot close to the church or easily accessible to the front of the church. The placement of stones is less happenstance than the layout of the cemetery suggests.



Evidence of the Egyptian Revival in St. John’s Church Cemetery


As I approached the grounds of St. John’s Church, one thing was clear: the perceptions of the presence of the divine shaped the layout of the cemetery grounds.  A very few gravestones remained concentrated around the church and within the walls and floors of the church, however the proximity of the gravestones transcended further to the boundaries of the cemetery plot.  However, despite noticing all the graves facing eastward and their proximity transcending from the consecrated ground of the church, one particular style provided a sense of presence and geometric perfection: the obelisk


There was something different about this stylistic element.  Although the style was relatively simplistic, it still commanded the attention of whoever walked the grounds of St. John’s Church.  The geometric nature of the obelisk exhibited a more rigid uniformity that the more artistically designed, more personalized gravestones lacked.  Not only does the sun light fall strategically on the perfect edges of the stone, but all lines converge to the point of a smaller pyramid at the top, seeming to convey the idea that the spirit of the deceased ascended into the heavens.  However, it is this simplicity that catered to my wonder.  How could such a pagan stylistic element be so delicately integrated into the Christian perception of death and the afterlife?

The campaigns of Napoleon in the late 1700s created the Western desire to adopt certain aspects of Egyptian culture.  This, in addition to the cultural influence of Freemasonry in the colonies, led to the resurgence of interest in the ancient Egyptian culture that allowed for such integration of the obelisk in Christian cemeteries.


IMG_9515IMG_9512    Mother. My mouth shaped the word soundlessly as I approached this grave from the eastern side of the burial ground at St. John’s Church. It intrigued me that this word stood alone on one of the surfaces of the grave in bold. Facing the direction of the rising sun, these letters are consistently first to see the light of day. As dawn breaks into morning, the world knows the woman buried in this spot as “Mother.” As I ambled around the grave, I began to think that she had no other identification on the grave, and this was the only way this woman wished to be remembered. However, I rounded the last corner, finally coming upon an inscription: “Mary Relict of Florence Downey, Born at Moville, CO, Donegal, Ireland. Aug. 8  1789 – Died July 29, 1880.” Mary Relict of Florence Downey was my mystery mother. I had mixed feelings as I repeated her identifier again and again in my mind. At first, I felt a warmth, knowing that her most descriptive word associates with taking care of others. I thought of my own mom. I thought of protection. The simple grave does not give us any more information about her family, but I imagine she probably had many children. Or, seeing as another prominent aspect of the memorial is a cross, this could relate to the Mother in a religious sense. As she was of Irish descent, one could possibly surmise that she was Catholic- a religion that places large influence on Mother Mary. Either way, she must have led a fulfilled life to want to be remembered as “Mother.” Then the warm feeling began to fade as a result of her word choice. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, women generally did not have equal rights as men. Inscriptions and epitaphs essentially are the last thing a person is connected with in the earthly world. Mary, although she could have been brilliantly intelligent, was forever doomed to be attached to the word “mother.” She could never be known as anything more because she was a woman, and mothering was her primary duty. What came off originally as a sweet word ended up leaving a bitter taste in my mouth.


In all, this grave struck me as unusual and attractive. The large cross, in a burial ground where religious symbols appeared infrequently, made me arrive at the conclusion that Mary held religion as a high priority. The top of the gravestone itself showed a scroll. It is possible that we can see the end of the scroll because it marks the end of her life on Earth. The shamrocks beautifully symbolize Mary’s country of origin. Although fairly simple, this gravestone holds a lot of meaning. Walking away from Mother, I felt that my time spent at her grave gave me insight to her life in ways that other stones did not.

St. John’s Episcopal Church

While visiting St. John’s Episcopal Church last Wednesday, we observed that there was not much rhyme or reason to the layout of the gravestones in the cemetery, other than that they all faced east. However, after touring the grounds on my own, I noticed something else most of the gravestones had in common: a lack of Christian iconography on the headstones. Unlike many of the tombstones we saw in the Farber Gravestone Collection, which had engravings of winged faces and hands reaching towards heaven, the tombstones at St. John’s seemed to have much more secular engravings like the urn and the willow tree, such as this slated headboard from Boston, Massachusetts:
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But one of the most intriguing gravestones I came across was one with an engraving that looked like a dollar sign with three vertical lines through it:


Unfamiliar with the symbol, I looked it up and found that it represents the Greek letters I, H, and S, or the first three letters of Jesus’ name in Greek. I was fascinated by this gravestone in particular because it seemed to be the most non-secular in a predominantly secular graveyard.

The gravestone belongs to Reverend Robert Archer Goodwin, who was also the Rector of St. John’s Church, according to the engraving on the stone. In Mr. Smith’s overview, he mentioned how many of the gravestones emphasized the script and the epitaph over the iconography. Reverend Goodwin’s stone includes a bible verse taken from 1 Corinthians 15:57 that reads, “Thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” whereas most other stones in the cemetery put emphasis on memorializing the deceased through their epitaphs.

The most distinguishing characteristic of the gravestone, however, is the cross at the top of the monument, in contrast with the traditional rounded headstones on most of the other graves in the site. The gravestone also takes an almost hierarchical shape, with Christ being at the base of the monument (in the bible verse), the middle (with the engraving), and at the top (with the large cross). Lastly, the gravestone is in close proximity to the church, which, according to Nelson’s reading, places him closer to God.

Though the gravesite is inclusive to catholics, baptists, and methodists, and the iconography on the headstones seems predominantly secular, this particular gravestone seems to keep the emphasis on God and Christianity within the churchyard.

St. John’s Church

The power of the divine is very apparent as one walks around the St. John’s Episcopal Church cemetery. The Episcopal Church places a large emphasis and importance on the building itself, believing that the presence of God is strongest and truly real within the walls of a church building. The tombstones make this clear throughout the cemetery as they surround the church and fill up the grounds. There seems to be a clear pattern among the tombstones—they all face towards the east. The east is where Christ is to come again, when the dead will be raised and the kingdom of God will be victorious against evil and death. The people buried here are God’s people, and they will be raised once again and live in eternity with Christ once he returns. The eastern orientation is a testimony of the faith and hope of the deceased, comforting their friends and family with the knowledge that they will soon rise and be with Christ.

Not only is direction important for one’s tombstone, but location relative to the church as well. Just as the stones face east, the most sacred and holy location for one to be buried is on the eastern side of the church building. It is an honor to be buried on the eastern end of St. John’s Church, and many men and women have desired to be laid there at their end. To be not only on the east but also close to the minister’s pulpit is to be close to the divine. The minister is the one who brings the word of God to the hearts of his congregation every week—why would you not want to be placed in that location once your time has passed? The power of God is within those walls and surrounding the pulpit, and the closer one can be the greater the power is in them. One man, however, certainly has the most revered burial location of all—he is buried under the very floorboards from which he spoke to his people when he was the reverend at St. John’s. With a plaque honoring his life directly in front of the original pulpit, the Holy Spirit in all of its power and glory forever surrounds him. In the hearts of these men and women buried here on the grounds of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Christ will return, and they will be ready.

Field Report #2: St. Johns Church

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This stone is placed on the back side of the church near the entrance to the bathrooms. During the tour, we discussed that most of the buried dead were episcopalian churchgoers. However the difference in gravestones suggest other socioreligious influences. Many non-local stones were of New England origin, but the one shown above is of international origin. The inscription on the side of this stone identifies the deceased as Mary from Ireland who lived from 1789-1880. Her nationality is also exemplified through the shamrocks on top aspect of the stone.  Our knowledge of Ireland from this time period suggests that this person was catholic. Other features of this gravestone confirms this hypothesis.

The stone itself is unlike any other in the cemetery. The shape seems representative of a bed, which is a common theme in gravestone art. However this bed seems more ornate and literally shaped like a bed. Other gravestones that represent beds are not as obvious as this stone. Aside from the shape, the large inscription of “MOTHER” is unique as well. This inscription can be interpreted in many ways. Firstly, the deceased woman was most likely a mother who were close with her children. The inscription may be highlighting her main role as mother for her family. A more religious approach allows us to make sense of the catholicism in this stone. The deceased’s name, in addition to the “MOTHER” inscription, suggests that Mary mother of Jesus Christ is highly valued in the woman’s family. Catholicism is known for representing Mary as a nearly divine figure because she was blessed by God to bring Jesus Christ into the world.

Despite the piety present in this graveyard, many of the stones do not contain overt religious symbols. The religious presence is contained within the inscriptions.  However, this stone contains a very large cross on it which seems consistent with catholic ideals. Catholics are proud of their faith and show their faith through outward measures (i.e. kneeling, communion, etc.). It is clear that this woman wanted to be remembered for her devotion to Christ.

Field Report: St. Johns and African Burial Ground

The stark difference between the burials at St John’s and the state of the African Burial Ground/ Burial Ground for Negroes is not surprising, yet it is disheartening. When first entering St. John’s churchyard, it is obviously a cemetery. Hundreds of gravestones facing east cover the grounds of the church. Monuments and commemorations for those buried there are erected throughout the grounds. Tour guides and reenactors roam the ground ready to give an impromptu performance of famous speeches made on that ground. And then there is the African Burial Ground, located by and under a high way, with only a lone sign to mark the ground as a place of rest. The reasoning behind the difference in appearance (and reverence) of these two areas is apparent, especially when looked at through both the stories behind people interred in the grounds and iconography found at the sites.
The iconography and stories behind the burials at both grounds are most interesting. The fact that only one story behind the bodies buried at the African Burial Ground survives, while the tour guide Ray had numerous stories to tell of the men and women buried at St. John’s is telling of both historical and modern Richmonders’ reactions and opinions of the burial grounds of these two very different groups of people. While the narrative of the black woman dug up from her initial grave and taken to the African burial ground is depressing, the stories told at St. John’s almost had a tone of being mythologized.
Although I do not think it is always necessary, or even a good idea, to read too deeply into stories from the past that might not be grounded in reality or concrete fact, the source describing the woman being treated so vile is important beyond just as a chilling narrative. This nameless woman’s plight can tell us about her economic state and by extension other contemporary Richmond blacks (she was able to be buried on land she owned), while also commenting on the feelings of hatred, fear, ect of early white Virginians towards blacks. They had to be buried in a plot where it was a known fact that they could be swept away by Shockoe Creek. It also has to be asked why this is the only narrative left of any of the people buried in the African Burial Ground. Did this story exist to scare Africans into being buried at this site (which was often ravaged by the environment) in fear of their graves being desecrated? Unlikely, but it could still have served a similar purpose.
In comparison to the lone story of the African Burial Ground, many somewhat fanciful, stories about both St. John’s churchyard and the people buried there were told. One can argue this is because St. John’s was integral to the shaping of Richmond, Virginia and early, colonial North America. While this is true, we all learn about Patrick Henry and Give me liberty or give me death, black Richmonders, both slaves and freemen, were the labor force that allowed Richmond to flourish economically.
The iconography of both burial grounds also brings up the same question of why the burial grounds are so different. The inclusion of the Sankofa symbol on the signage for the African Burial ground was a misguided attempt to add some type of African spiritualism to a ground devoid of any type of memorial to the actual people buried there. I think that it is important to note that it is only speculation to think that the people buried at the Burial Ground for Negroes would have any type of connection to those symbols. The only spiritual symbol found at the African Burial Ground does not do justice to the grounds.

St. John’s Church and the Selden family

How St. John’s Church and I Are Connected
As we walked around St. John’s Church in Church Hill and viewed the graves I wondered how my family’s history might be similar to those buried within the church on the hill’s cemetery. Did my family know these people? Did my family attend church the day Patrick Henry gave his speech? I also noted many symbols of the Masonic order which I felt normal as at the time many men participated in this male centric social group. The old Masonic meeting house is actually still standing just a few blocks away from St. John’s Church. I decided I would do my report on Masonic symbols on tombstones but that changed as I started my research.
My father is a Mason and so was my Grandfather and thinking on that reminded me of the time my Grandmother told me she thought we were related to Patrick Henry somewhere down the line. Since St. John’s Church was the backdrop for the famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech I grabbed our lineage book for Agnes Selden Strang, my paternal Grandmother’s, paternal genealogy. The book Samuel Selden The Immigrant And His Wife Rebecca Yeo compiled by Jefferson Sinclair Selden Jr. and follows the lineage of the first time the Selden name entered Virginia. I found out so much about the group known as the “Richmond Seldens”. Apparently the Selden’s had their finger in pretty much all that is Richmond. There were too many interesting stories, famous people, ghost stories etc. for me to chronicle in this report so I Will stick to what is directly relevant to this class.
Let’s start with Patrick Henry. His daughter Anne had one child a male named William Harrison Roane. William married Martha Bland “Patsy” Selden. There was my link to Patrick Henry but reading on I found out that she was granddaughter of Reverend Miles Cary and Rebecca Cary Selden. Selden was the rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church of Richmond, Virginia from 1752 to 1758 who is noted to have supported the patriots of the Revolution. He was known also as the “Patriot Parson”. Another Selden, Jefferson Sinclair Selden served on the vestry at St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Jumping cemeteries for a second I found a page with a picture of the huge Pyramidal Monument at Hollywood cemetery. I found I have many Selden relatives buried under the Selden name and in other family plots such as the plot of the James family and in the Tabb family plot. I also discovered that Elizabeth Lewis Selden married Captain Charles Henry Dimmock of the CSA upon returning from war “was instrumental in organizing “The Ladies’ Hollywood Memorial Association”.” Under the supervision of the Capt., in 1869, this organization honored some 18000 Confederate troops by building the Pyramidal Monument. That same year Dimmock was elected Richmond City Engineer and helped plan the street layouts and worked on many of the Public buildings still seen today.
Speaking of the Confederate States of America, Dr. Charles Selden was the junior surgeon in attendance during General Stonewall Jackson’s arm amputation. He warned that the stress of the battle and the shock of receiving the wound if compounded with the shock of surgery would be too much for Jackson to handle. Dr. Selden’s advice was not taken. It is thought that “Selden was possibly one of the first of his time to recognize there was such a thing as “shock” and “stress”, that “shock” to the system can be fatal as the wound itself.”
There are numerous other family links including marriages into the Curles family of Curles’ Dairy, also into the Colgate family and the Booth family, etc. Those stories plus the numerous others are interesting but start to lead away from our class’s topic of cemeteries.
Many of my other relatives are buried in Riverview Cemetery and Sherwood, the Selden’s family plantation closest to Richmond, plantation cemetery. There are also sporadic burials at almost every cemetery directly around here but nothing of great mentionable importance.
Many family members were also noted as having been Masons. It is funny how the classic symbol of Masonry membership found on tombstones scattered around the yard of the church on the hill lead me into an in depth study of the Selden genealogy and into that names numerous Richmond links which came full circle back to the history of St. John’s Church.

St. John’s/Burial Ground

Last week when we visited the African Burial Ground and the cemetery at St. Johns Church I kept thinking of how how much the two sites differed. Both should have been preserved and maintained to the same extent but this however, was not the case.

At the burial ground we had very little evidence that there was even anything significant about the plot of land we were standing on other than the fact that there were a few signs that had only been placed there a few years before. It was difficult for me to take in the importance of the place just because of the fact that there had been nothing that made it seem that way. The complete disrespect for the African Burial Ground then made me upset thinking about how many people would have been laid to rest there. Then when we moved onto the cemetery at St. John’s Church I grew even more furious when I saw the measures being taken to preserve the head stones and other structures in the church yard.

As we continued through the cemetery and burial ground it was important to note the extant to which the graves had been marked or their positioning within he graveyard. At St. John’s there was a emphasis on placing the graves facing eastward because of the fact that this meant the dead were facing towards God. Also the more prominent people within the Richmond community were also placed on the eastern side of the church, this would mean that they were the closet to God within the cemetery. The prominent figures would also have headstones, there are only a fraction amount of headstones in the St. John cemetery than there are people that are actually buried there. Many prominent figures or people who were more financially stable would have tombstones made to mark their graves.

The presence of tombstones is something that is oddly missing at the African Burial Ground. This can be for many reasons, one being money involved in purchasing the stones from a stone mason in local Richmond. Because most stone native to Virginia is not something that is ideal for making headstones with t would mean that they would be somewhat expensive even for the white citizens at the time, which is clear to see at the unmarked raves in St. John’s cemetery. Another issues would have been that here was a creek running through the African Burial Ground, this would mean that erosion of the land would have made it hard for grave markers to stay intact.

While we were at the burial ground I would have liked to have known what the families would have used during the time in order to mark the graves of their loved ones. This would have probably been done with a wood marker or even with stones that are obviously obsolete in the present.

Another thing that I noticed was the fact that St. John’s church was built on the highest point of the city. This was because it was the main focal point of the city at the time. It is also important to note that in relation to St. John’s the African Burial ground is located at an extremely low point in the city. This was something that really stood out to me and kind of put into perspective how the Africans and African Americans stood in the hierarchical society that used to be Richmond.

With time I would hope that the City of Richmond will help in preserving the burial ground more but I am a little pessimistic. Although there have been major moves made in just a couple of years but I am afraid that is the extent to which it will be preserved and researched.

Field Report 2: St. John’s Church and the African Burial Ground.

The two burial grounds we visited last week revealed and highlighted the starkly contrasting realities and conditions that existed in the lives of the City of Richmond’s black and white populations during the 18th and 19th centuries, and how the historical inequalities of life in a society based on racial slavery extended past the realm of the living, oppressing and marginalizing black populations even in death.

The location of each burial ground is telling of the strict racial hierarchy that existed in the city during much of the history of Richmond, where white population was placed figuratively and in the case of the two cemeteries literally above the black population. In contrast with the commanding view of the James from the cemetery on the high ground at St. John’s Church, the African Burial ground, located in the swampy depths of Shockoe Valley is an inversion of the honorific and prestigious nature of the burial ground at St. John’s Church. Located in what would have been the swamps and low lands surrounding Shockoe creek, the African burial ground in the 18th and early 19th century was literally a place of refuse, a no man’s land of sort where the waste and rain  from the homes and populations on  the surrounding hills would wash into the valley along with the flood waters of Shockoe creek, turning the expanse of the African burial ground into a putrid mix of mud and human and animal waste that would wash away the caskets and bodies of the dead from the earth in which they were interred. Accompanied by the presence of the gallows as indicated on historical maps, the African Burial ground was given none of the prestige or care, nor allotted the any of the sanctity, that was enjoyed by the white residents that rest in the ground surrounding Saint John’s Church.

The careful arrangement, preservation, and restoration of St. John’s Church and the surrounding graveyard is indicative of the value the city of Richmond has historically placed in the legacy of the lives of it’s white citizens in contrast with the city’s black populations, especially in regard to the lives of African and African American slaves that spent their lives laboring and helping to build the city of Richmond.  At St. John’s Church, the deep religiosity of  early Richmond society is shown in the arrangement of the graves facing East towards Jerusalem and the supposed sight of Christ’s resurrection and second coming. This attention to detail and the careful manner in which  the dead where arranged by the White population further sheds light on the disregard and lack of concern they held for the physical and spiritual well being of the black population, allowing themselves to turn a blind eye towards the lack of proper religious and Christian burial practices for the black population that they would expect for themselves, in a society defined by its belief in God.

While undoubtedly the historical significance of St. John’s Church in regard to the nation’s founding has a large role to play in the preservation and continued use of its church grounds, one can’t help but feel that in the year 2016 the disparity between the historical legacies of the city in regard to race is still quite stark when compared to the relatively run down nature of the African Burial grounds in Shockoe Bottom versus the prominence of St. John’s Church.  I came away with a better understanding of the historical nature of Richmond and how the very geography of the city was utilized to further ingrain the racist nature of the structural institutions in Richmond society, even in death.