SPECIAL: Funds allocated to bring new life to a neglected cemetery

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (NEWSPLEX) -- A project is underway to bring new life to a once forgotten graveyard in Charlottesville.

The site is pretty unknown to many people, but if you've ever been to Oakwood Cemetery, you've probably driven or walked by the Daughters of Zion Cemetery without realizing what it is.

The small site behind the Oakwood Cemetery is where African-Americans were buried for decades, but years of neglect left it in bad shape. Now there's an effort to figure out who was laid to rest there.

For Bernadette Whitsett-Hammond, family history means everything.

"A positive strong legacy of determination, pride, love, has been instilled in the family over the years," said Whitsett-Hammond.

She was raised in Ebenezer Baptist Church, a place where you can find her great-grandmother's name etched into a stained glass window, growing up with the values of honoring those who came before her.

"As time goes on and your elders pass," said Whitsett-Hammond. "You realize someone has to be there to fill-in and continue the legacy."

For Whitsett-Hammond, that inspired a passion. She now frequents the cemetery on a mission for change.

The drive might look familiar, as if you're going to Oakwood Cemetery, but Whitsett-Hammond is going just beyond to a place seemingly abandoned.

"I grew up accompanying them there, so I always knew the place existed," she said. "I did wonder about the distinction between that cemetery and the one across the street."

And she's not alone.

"It's named for a benevolent group of African-American women," said Edwina St.Rose. "Daughters of Zion."

Whitsett-Hammond and St.Rose are part of a group of women, working to preserve the cemetery. They call themselves the Preservers of the Daughters of Zion.

It was created in 1873, when other cemeteries in the city banned African-Americans from being buried there, but over time it was forgotten.

"The Daughters of Zion members died out and that was in the 1930s," said St.Rose. "In the 1970-71 time frame, the city declared it abandoned and took it over."

The city took it over, but didn't always protect it. The city was responsible for the landscape.

"Vandalism has occurred, erosion has occurred," said Whitsett-Hammond.

Some of the headstones now are broken and others have disappeared, so these women decided to go to the city for more help.

"We want to know our history," said St.Rose. "Within these two acres, there is a lot of African-American history, there is a lot of shared history."

Their appeal to the Charlottesville City Council was approved, and $80,000 will go towards the restoration.

Their concerns aren't just about the conditions of the grave markers. It's the fact the cemetery is two full acres, which means dozens of people might be buried there in unmarked graves. The preservers are looking to find them.

"It's estimated that 300 burials are here," said St.Rose. "I think approximately 136 are identified."

Finding the others won't be easy. City councilors say it's a delicate process to identify the dead without disturbing their resting place.

"We can do a study where they can take equipment that sees down into the ground," said Charlottesville City Councilor Kristin Szakos. "So they can see if there are any graves there that aren't marked."

The Charlottesville Department of Parks and Recreation will work to fix up the grounds, and Szakos says they want to see the site as a landmark.

"We have a few interesting and important historical sites in the city," said Szakos. "This could be added to that."

Though getting funding was a victory, with two acres to cover, the journey is far from over.

"The city stepped up and realized the importance of preserving that spot," said Whitsett-Hammond. "It's a historical gem right in the city of Charlottesville and it too has a story to tell."

The Preservers of Daughters of Zion will have a re-dedication of the cemetery at the end of May when they will unveil a new historic marker from the city.

The re-dedication takes place May 29 at 2 p.m.

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