Uncovered history inside Charlottesville’s Pen Park inspires descendants to reclaim their stories

Published: Feb. 28, 2022 at 10:49 PM EST
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - In a small section of the largest park in Charlottesville lies hidden history -- recently discovered, and already making an impact.

The sound of a golf ball being hit by a club is a familiar sound at Charlottesville’s Pen Park, home of an 18-hole course. Stephen Waller is one of many who has done that before.

“It feels familiar because I’ve played golf here before,” Waller said at an interview at the park. “But I didn’t know what was going on over here.”

The ‘over here’ he’s referring to is a small, quarter-of-an-acre plot of fenced-off land just to the right of the 14th hole.

In that spot, you’ll see the cemeteries for the three families who lived on the land, mostly in the 17th and 18th centuries: the Gilmers, Cravens, and Hottops. But Waller recognizes the walls around them.

“It’s most likely that these very walls were built by the same people who weren’t given the dignity to be buried inside of those walls and given a name,” he said. “So, we are now the names.”

Enslaved people weren’t buried inside those walls, but they aren’t far away.

“These areas right here just jump off the map,” said Charlottesville’s Preservation and Design Manager Jeff Werner, as he was pointing to the several depressions, or small indents, in the land surrounding those walls.

In 2020, a geophysics company conducted a ground-penetrating radar survey. The findings?

“I think we have a much larger burial area,” Werner said. “We’re dealing with [more] than a dozen graves.”

In all, 43 unmarked graves were identified -- it could be more. But it was a starting point for the next chapter of this story: who is buried in this park.

“I had to go to the Library of Virginia, I had to go to the courthouse. I had to go to special collections. I had to look at marriage records. It was a lot of work, but I’m retired. So I had time to do it,” Sam Towler, a volunteer researcher, said with a laugh.

Towler has dug through the records trying to answer that extremely difficult question. While he can’t know for sure, he was able to make a likely connection from George Gilmer, who owned 77 people and died in 1795, all the way up to 1952: a John Gilmer Waller.

Waller -- as in Stephen Waller.

“The very next day Jeff [Werner] comes back and said, ‘You know what? John Gilmer Waller is Stephen’s grandfather,” Towler said.

“There could be people whose blood is coursing through my veins sitting right over there,” Stephen Waller said. “And nobody told us about it. They don’t even have names. They weren’t even given names.”

Through documents, like an 1803 list of people who George Gilmer gave to his son, and an 1869 Albemarle County Personal Property Tax Record, Towler helped get the story back in the hands of the people who were stripped of the right to tell it years ago.

“There’s an emotional part to this,” Waller said. “We’re seeing how close your generation is -- the generations of the folks you knew, your parents, your great grandparents -- how close those generations are to the ugly history that our country has in slavery.”

For the first time with this new knowledge, Stephen brought his parents to see the unmarked graves at Pen Park.

“It’s really awful,” Curtis Waller, Stephen’s father said. “It makes you think: we never knew much of our Papa Gilmore.”

“Then you start looking in the documents and it feels like we’re not so far removed from the folks who were here where we’re standing now,” Stephen Waller said.

Through a city government initiative and tireless research, the once-forgotten stories of Black men and women in Charlottesville are being told in a new light. Stephen Waller and his family get to tell it.

Tom Chapman, the executive director of the Albemarle-Charlottesville Historical Society, wants other descendants to have that experience too.

“There’s joy and there’s pain and it’s everything that we know,” Chapman said. “And once you tie it down to history, and then you see the local history is important. And the story we can tell here is one of community.”

Chapman and the historical society are continuing to reach out to community members, hoping for more descendents’ voices to figure out what to do with the space.

“We don’t need to be in that position anymore of saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do with your burial ground here,’” Chapman said. “We’re beyond that. We need to have that descendant community [as] that voice.”

Stephen Waller said he does want some symbolic gesture, but what he wants more is connection.

“What I hope happens is that we continue to find more family members,” he said. “There’s still a lot of ground to be made up. Some of that ground is just to simply say ‘who are we? Who did our families know? How did they live?’ Those things. The stories that haven’t been told.

Werner said the project has been a series of coincidences, but maybe none more than this: the Waller-Kyles-Winston family reunion has been held for years at Pen Park.

Stephen Waller said: all these years, maybe that was their ancestors calling them back.

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