MIDDLETOWN – Students from Shenandoah University and John Handley High School on Friday afternoon helped map gravesites at The Henrico Baltimore Family Cemetery/West Africa Community Graveyard.
Kaylee Corbin, a 17-year-old senior at Handley High School, found a stone marker - which often indicates a burial site - during the mapping.
“At first, the top of the stone was barely sticking up (from the ground). We dug it up and it’s much larger,” Kaylee said. “It marks a slave that was lost.”
She said she likes knowing she helped find a lost soul.
Jeff Taylor, the founder of the Genesis Project, which was started to preserve and document the site, along with Ellen Gant, of the Middletown Historical Society, have been visiting the site located off Reliance Road for months, cleaning up decades of debris, tree limbs and leaves from the land to uncover burial sites and markers of slaves and freed slaves. They, along with volunteers, documented more than 140 burial sites.
Taylor and Gant asked Jonathan Noyalas, director of the McCormick Civil War Institute and history professor at Shenandoah University, to map the site.
Noyalas was on hand to instruct and supervise the mapping, which he estimates took about 2 1/2 hours to complete. He spoke to more than a dozen students and volunteers beforehand.
“You ask most people in the Shenandoah Valley were their slaves and most will tell you there were not or that there were not many. About one-quarter of the valley leading up to the Civil War were enslaved. They had no choices; they were told what to do,” Noyalas said.
This is the second mapping project Noyalas has supervised, with the first being Mount Zion Cemetery in Middletown, which was mapped in February 2018.
“That cemetery and this cemetery is a metaphor on how African-American history has been in the shadows. The work you are doing today brings that to light,” Noyalas said. “Every human being deserves to be remembered.”
The mapping project documents the location of believed burial sites, as well as any writings, markings or shape of headstones.
One team of Shenandoah University students helping map the graveyard included Ashleigh Wright, 24, a first-year graduate student, Kimberly Perry, 34, a junior, and Matt Kohler, 29, a senior.
“I love African history,” Wright said.
She said she was glad she came out to see first hand the site,
“See what they went through and by doing that maybe they live again,” Wright said.
Kohler said he wanted to come out to give back to the valley community.
The Genesis project is fundraising to continue research and cleanup of the site. Anyone wanting information can contact Taylor at 540-233-1692 or by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gant said they plan to have volunteers manning tables selling baked goods and other items at various locations on Valentine's Day to help raise money. Locations will include the Gas Mart near the Blue Ridge Shadows Golf Course on Route 522, and the 7-Eleven and the Liberty gas stations in Middletown.
They also rent space at Downtown Market, 206 E. Main St., Front Royal. Items sold from their space go toward the fundraising, Taylor said.