ELKTON — Huddled under umbrellas, a few dozen people gathered around a stone marker Saturday morning to memorialize slaves buried at Elk Run Cemetery in Elkton.
Monica Robinson, president of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham County NAACP branch, led a roughly 15-minute service that included prayers, hymns and the laying of a wreath.
“We feel it’s our duty as ancestors and residents to show respect,” said Robinson.
Elkton resident Esther Nizer, who was serving as president of the local NAACP chapter at the time, began the annual ceremony began in 2011. Nizer hadn’t know about the graves until a friend from church told her of the cemetery’s history.
She felt moved to start an annual service to recognized the slaves.
“It’s important to take a moment and reflect on their lives, and to honor them,” Nizer said. “They existed ... it’s part of our history. We’re here to celebrate them as people, not occupations.”
The event is held the second Saturday of each February to coincide with President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. The 16th president signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in the Confederacy on Jan. 1, 1863.
Nizer said a women’s group placed the marker at the cemetery about 30 to 40 years ago. It reads, “Beloved slaves: Gone but not forgotten.” It’s unclear how many slaves are buried at the cemetery, but organizers believe there could be about 50.
During the ceremony, 23 names were called out. The Simeon B. Jennings family had the names listed in their 1818 Bible. It’s believed those slaves were buried there with the family.
Not all the slave plots had been marked previously, but someone added stone markers stating “unknown” on more than a dozen graves since last year.
Robinson, who said it’s unclear who added the stones, said it’s appreciated and that it is important to preserve history.
“If people don’t care, it will be a piece of history that will be forgotten,” she said. “It will be lost.”
The service ended with a hymn.
“We’ve come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord, trusting in his holy word,” they sang. “He never failed me yet.”
Pastor Dan Bassett of Bethel United Church of Christ near Elkton, and his wife, Nancy Bassett, attended the service for the first time.
“I didn’t realize we had this section of the cemetery,” said Nancy Bassett, adding that slaves should be honored. “I don’t think they get the respect they deserve.”
Leewood Davis, 73, of Elkton, has attended the service every year. Davis said it’s critical to educate younger generations about the history of the cemetery.
Many people in the community, he said, seemed to have forgotten that the graves exist.
“They don’t even know anything about it,” Davis said.
Contact Pete DeLea at 574-6267 or firstname.lastname@example.org