A genealogical blogger I know named Schalene Jennings Dagutis, author of the blog Tangled Roots and Trees, recently created the Slave Name Roll Project . It has become very popular quickly, and offers an excellent way to catalogue the names of slaves for genealogical research by descendants, bloggers, and all interested parties. Thank you so much for thinking of this and doing it Schalene!
In response, I am writing this post and others to identify slaves that I have discovered were owned by my ancestors. That very statement bothers me terribly. I know all the arguments for the “institution of slavery”, how labor was needed to run the huge plantations of the Southeastern United States, etc. Nonetheless, I find it an abhorrent idea that any one individual might think they have the right to “own” another person! It brings with it a sense of shame although I have always been proud of being a Southerner. Somehow I separate or deny the issue generally–bad idea! It is a part of our history, a fact, that some of my grandparents owned slaves. I am happy now to see what I can do to help identify them, and list them by name to be recognized in the Slave Name Roll Project.
An African-American friend of mine, True Lewis, is another genealogical blogger whose blog titled “Note’s to Myself about My True Roots” can be found at http://www.mytrueroots.blogspot.com/. This is a quote from her that inspires me so very much and in many ways gave me “permission” and encouragement to identify the slaves that I can. About finding and publishing slave’s names, she says: “It’s Honorable to do…You’re RELEASING their Names and their Souls for their Descendants to hopefully find them one day. Every time this Happens they are Rejoicing. They have been in a book or what have you for so long.” Thank you for the encouragement True.
I also want to thank another genealogical blogger and friend, Cathy Meder – Dempsey, who writes her blog Opening Doors in Brick Walls at https://openingdoorsinbrickwalls.wordpress.com/. Actually, I first found out about the Slave Name Roll Project when she wrote about it a week or so ago. I am so happy that she did, all of this collaboration and encouragement is what moves us forward.
As I began to research my ancestors who owned slaves, I decided to start with one of my closest ancestral families whom I’ve been involved with a lot lately due to helping plan the first reunion of descendants last August, 2014. My second great-grandfather, James Steptoe Langhorne owned a 13,000 acre plantation in the mountains of Virginia. He did own slaves, as did his brother William Langhorne who lived nearby on the same property. For such a large place, Grandpa Steptoe as he was called, owned relatively few slaves. He was blind you see, and he owned a grist mill and came from a wealthy family, so I suspect he didn’t do a lot of agricultural work, some as I understand it. As I looked for information, I was reminded that a very talented writer and editor I know, one Bob Heafner, had edited and published a magazine/journal in the Southwest area of Virginia starting about 1983 I believe. In The Mountain Laurel (now available online at: http://www.mtnlaurel.com/) he had published stories, reviews, recipes, and generally given a voice and a window to life in those Blue Ridge Mountains! More than that, Bob Heafner was a social activist as well. In 1984, when he realized that the headstones of the slaves once owned by James Steptoe Langhorne, interred in the cemetery at the Meadows of Dan Baptist Church, were broken or missing, having been displaced by the construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway, he embarked on a thirty year project to have them restored and the slaves recognized! Extraordinary! In his own words:
“The Slave Meadow
By Bob Heafner © 2012
Online: September, 2012
In 1984, when I promised Mr. Matt Burnette that I would try to get the headstones restored to the African-American graves on National Park Service land adjacent to the Meadows of Dan Baptist Church Cemetery, I had no idea what trying to keep that promise would entail. After twenty-eight years, hundreds of emails, meetings and countless frustrations the Blue Ridge Parkway management has finally erected a fence around the “old slave cemetery” shown on the original acquisition maps drawn in 1938 when the State of Virginia was acquiring the right of way for the Parkway.
On June 1, 2010, I wrote this email to Phil Francis, Superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Within twenty-four hours after emailing Mr. Francis, he called and said he was going to “do the right thing,” about these almost forgotten African-American pioneers.
Mr. Francis, good to his word, got the ball rolling and on August 4, 2010, John Johnson and I met with Steven Kidd, Bambi Teague and Monika Mayr at the Guilford Courthouse Visitor Center in Greensboro, North Carolina.
On November 22, 2010, John and I met with Steven Kidd at The Slave Meadow in Meadows of Dan. Using a backhoe, Mr. Kidd dug several two to three feet deep holes at the sunken spots near the Langhorne Family plot but said he saw no evidence of graves. Mr. Matt and other old timers were adamant that the Langhorne slaves are buried there and I still believe they were correct.
Earlier this year the Blue Ridge Parkway erected a fence around the “old slave cemetery.” It’s not what Mr. Matt wanted but at least there is now official acknowledgement that people are buried in this scenic mountain meadow beside the Blue Ridge Parkway in Meadows of Dan, Virginia. Thanks to Leslie Shelor, owner of the Greenberry House in Meadows of Dan, for the photo.”
In this article, Bob Heafner actually names the slaves buried in this area of the cemetery:
“The Slave Meadow Story
By Bob Heafner © 2001
In the mid-nineteenth century they accompanied the James Steptoe Langhorne family to “Langdale,” a “plantation” encompassing the area where the tiny mountain community of Meadows of Dan, Virginia, is located today. The Langhorne family owned thousands of acres in the area prior to the Civil War.
According to the will of Henry Scarsbrook Langhorne, his son James Steptoe Langhorne had already been given five slaves prior to his father’s death. They were: Robinson and his wife Vestey, George (a man), John (a boy) and Page (a girl). After the Civil War, the 1870 Census reveals that Ira Langhorne and his wife Page and their two children, Mary and Ellis, were living next door to the James Steptoe Langhorne family.
Little is known about the Langhorne slaves, or even their exact number, but two facts are certain; they were African-Americans and this meadow is the final resting place of some of them.
The Langhorne family obviously thought highly of these people because they specified that they be buried in the Langhorne family section of the Meadows of Dan Baptist Church Cemetery.
However, nearly seventy-five years ago, when the Blue Ridge Parkway was built, the National Park Service acquired that portion of the cemetery where the slaves are buried. The Langhorne family graves are on church property beneath the shade of a tall poplar tree immediately adjacent to Parkway property. If you were standing in the shade of this old tree today, however, you would not see any evidence of the slaves’ graves, only the little mountain church on a small hill with its tall white steeple and well-kept cemetery.
Separating the cemetery and the Parkway is a small meadow, covered in summer by waist-high orchard grass that sways gently in cool mountain breezes. Buried in this picturesque mountain setting, is not only the Langhorne slaves but the symbolic remnants of African-American history in the Blue Ridge. These pioneers have passed into the oblivion of time unknown, their lives and contributions all but forgotten. They lived without benefit of freedom and now in death they face eternity without the final human dignity of a simple stone marker to acknowledge their lives.
Old man Matt Burnett, told me about the graves before he died and recalled why there were no markers. During the construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway the markers, which were just simple stones, were carried into the woods at the edge of the meadow to “get them out-of-the-way” during construction. The intent was to put them back when they were finished but no one ever got around to it.
Shortly after hearing about these unmarked slave graves in 1984, I approached Gary Everhart, who was then Superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway, about the possibility of placing a granite marker on the site to commemorate not only the people buried there but to honor the overall African-American contribution to Blue Ridge history. Mr. Everhart agreed, provided I could raise the funds necessary to erect the monument and prepare the site.
The monument I envisioned was a single granite boulder between six and eight feet high, left rough and unpolished to symbolize the rugged life, hardships and quiet endurance of those it would commemorate. However, efforts to raise the necessary funds met with no success.
I feared then, and still fear now, that unless something is done before long, the replacement of the gravestones or the erection of a monument may never happen. With that in mind, on June 12, 2001, I wrote a letter to Daniel W. Brown, who succeeded Gary Everhart as superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and asked the National Park Service to assist in getting the gravestones replaced. After all, National Park Service employees removed the gravestones during Parkway construction and it only seems right that the National Park Service shoulder the burden of replacing the monuments.
I was pleased to receive a prompt and encouraging email reply from Gordon Wissinger, Chief Ranger, of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and later met with Mindy DeCesar, District Interpretive Specialist and was very hopeful that finally action would be taken to restore The Slave Meadow gravestones. Unfortunately, that was almost nine years ago and the gravestones have still not been replaced nor a monument erected.
If you are an educator please tell your students, if you are a minister please tell your congregation. Individuals, please tell your family, friends and co-workers and encourage their support of this effort.
Let’s put our hope together and encourage the National Park Service to do the right thing. A monument in this meadow would serve as a reminder to generations that the pioneers of our nation were of all races, the rich and the poor, the free and the slave.”
Wow, I am so moved by Bob Heafner’s work over the years on behalf of slaves owned by my family! I wish I had gotten involved sooner, perhaps I can be of some help from here out! This article gives us the names of nine slaves owned by James Steptoe Langhorne. They are:
1. Robinson and 2. his wife Vestry
3. George, an adult
4. John, a boy
5. Page a girl. ( I wonder if she is the same as the later identified Page, wife of Ira Langhorne?)
6. Ira Langhorne and 7. his wife Page
8. Mary Langhorne their daughter and
9. Ellis Langhorne, son of Ira and Page
I will have to do some research to discover if there are other names available of the other slaves. Of course I will ask that they be included in the Slave Name Roll Project also, to honor their lives, and their memory.
Please share your thoughts with me, I’d like to know what you think about this whole issue. Helen