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Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Meadows of Dan Slave Cemetery

Parkway Property, Meadows of Dan, VA. Image by L. Shelor

Up against a narrow border of trees a cemetery spreads beside the Blue Ridge Parkway. Generations of mountain people have been buried in this cemetery, next to a white church that is a landmark in the community of Meadows of Dan. The existence of a Baptist church on these grounds dates back to the early settlement of the region, and most of the oldest families are represented on the gravestones in the cemetery.

There is a little field between the cemetery and US Business 58, a triangle bound on the third side by the Parkway. This land now belongs to the National Park Service. But at one time it belonged to the church cemetery, and local lore has it that there are graves in this small field. Some of the graves are supposed to hold the remains of the slaves of local families, particularly those of the Langhorne family.

There are records of few slaves in this region of the mountains. The few families that owned slaves in these remote areas lived and worked side by side with their human property, and often slaves were buried with their masters in family cemeteries. The Langhorne family owned large expanses of property in Meadows of Dan and it is reported that they gave the land for the two Baptist churches in the community. Marked graves for members of the Langhorne family rest in the cemetery at the Baptist Church, and the story is passed down through locals that there were graves marked only with fieldstone in the small meadow now owned by the Parkway.

A fieldstone set on end was a common marker for members of the community, slave and free alike. Such markers are seen in family cemeteries all across the Blue Ridge Mountains. Families dug the graves and saw to what markers could be managed, long before the days of funeral homes. In even earlier times engraved markers were handmade, carved fieldstone with rough-cut letters chiseled by a family member or neighbor. If no one got around to making a marker, which could happen with the press of farming and raising a family, the simple stone had to suffice. Memory served to record the placement of family graves, and memory failed as people aged and died without passing on the information.

When the construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway commenced in the 1930s, the small field that now adjoins the Meadows of Dan Baptist Church cemetery became Park Service property. Local
members of the community remembered that the fieldstone markers were removed by the construction workers to the edge of the woods as the road came through. When the work was done the stones remained piled askew, and the fact that they were markers for members of the community, slave or free, was overlooked and neglected. As time went on the exact locations were forgotten.

When slavery was abolished, most of the few remaining black citizens of Meadows of Dan left the area. There are a few stories about families that lived on and worked in the community, but all were gone by the 1930s. Even if there had been relatives of the people buried in the cemetery remaining in the area, black or white, people were preoccupied with their own lives and memory had probably faded by that time as to who was actually buried in the little plot.

In the 1950s a handsome, well-dressed black woman came to Meadows of Dan, searching for information about her ancestors that were slaves in Meadows of Dan. Sadly the locals could tell her little, but she was taken out to the little plot by the Parkway and the possible location of her family graves was pointed out.

Family cemeteries across the Blue Ridge are in danger of being forgotten, as the young people leave the mountains in search of ways of making a living. The few people with first hand knowledge of the existence of the lost graves at Meadows of Dan Baptist church are slipping away with each passing year. Bob Heafner of The Mountain Laurel has made an attempt to press the National Park Service to right the wrong done to these members of the community by asking that a marker be placed to commemorate the graves and highlight the contributions of black slaves who worked alongside the first settlers. His last update of information about his efforts is dated May 16, 2005.

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