African American burials behind Freeman High School

Yesterday, I was contacted by John Larkins, a longtime teacher at Douglas S. Freeman High School in Henrico County. Larkins has become aware of a burial ground at the rear of the school, adjoining Ridge Baptist Church. The ground originally served an African American community with a related Baptist church, Westwood. (Someone created a Findagrave page for it.) In the early twentieth century, this community opened a second graveyard near the “Toys R Us” store nearby on Quioccasin Road, with surviving headstones, seen at this Findagrave cemetery.

The challenge faced by the community and Larkins is that headstones appear to have been removed from the original burial ground and possibly relocated to the subsequent graveyard on Quioccasin. That left the original site, now untended, without markers explaining its burials. The original graveyard is now in private hands, according to county tax records. Selden Richardson made reference to this episode in his 2007 book, Built By Blacks. A useful history of this community written by a descendant can be found in Brenda Dabney Nichols’s African Americans of Henrico County, published in 2010. There, Nichols traces the history of the Morse/Moss family associated with the land. Nichols’s daughter, the scholar and preservationist Colita N. Fairfax, notes the burial ground’s legacy as the Morse Family Cemetery.

Henrico County detailed efforts to find and mark such overlooked cemeteries in a 2009 video, “No Stone Unturned: Cemetery Identification in Henrico County,” and Lynn Rainville traces the phenomenon in her 2014 book, Hidden History: African-American Cemeteries in Central Virginia.

Here we have another opportunity for the community to join with descendants to study the history of an important site and organize a movement toward raising a historic marker.