Saving One of Virginia's First African American Cemeteries

Aug 29, 2018

Virginia is preparing to mark a painful anniversary—the first Africans brought to English America as slaves.

Last week in Hampton, Governor Ralph Northam gathered with the descendants of William Tucker, the first African to be born in what would become the United States.

Surrounding the Tucker Family Cemetery is everyday life. Modest homes in the Aberdeen Gardens subdivision were built around 1937, by African American families. Most didn't know the cluster of thick, vined woods where they hung out as kids or dumped trash was the final resting place for some of Virginia's first African Americans.

Molly Ward former Hampton mayor and former State Secretary for Natural Resources was integral in bringing it back. "I had an old friend in Aberdeen named William Tucker, who brought me out here one afternoon to show me the cemetery," Ward remembered. "It was overgrown, it was a mess and I didn't know it was here."

Verrandall Tucker does some last minute tidying before the ceremony.
Credit Pamela D'Angelo

Today, it's like being in a huge room with a carpet of green surrounded by old growth trees. There are flowers and benches to rest among the more than 100 markers. As descendant Vincent Tucker told the crowd, "you'll have plenty of company. You will not be alone."

For most African Americans, family history is an unknown. Cemeteries are key to tracing ancestry. Brett Glymph is executive director of the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, which is giving the William Tucker 1624 Society $100,000 to preserve it. "For African American history, cemeteries are oftentimes the only written record you have of the enslaved individuals who lived in this country," Glymph said. "The people who are buried here represent some of the earliest arrivals to the English New World."

In Virginia, institutionalized racism broke up African American communities preventing them from caring for and protecting their cemeteries. Governor Ralph Northam called it shameful. "History tends to repeat itself and we must learn from our past history and not repeat times when there were inequities because of the color of one's skin, the religion that they practiced or the country that they come from."

Descendants of William Tucker knew the story of their earliest ancestors, Antoney and Isabell, who were either slaves or indentured servants at a nearby plantation. The two married and about 1624, had a son, William Tucker. What they didn't know is they were among the first Africans to be brought to the British colony, landing in what is now Fort Monroe in 1619.

Kene Lively, a Tucker descendent and member of Boy Scouts of America Troop 1833, Stone Mountain, Georgia, salutes during color guard ceremony at his family's cemetery.
Credit Pamela D'Angelo

Thirteen-year-old Kene Lively, a resident of Georgia and an avid Boy Scout he says he doesn't talk much about his family history. "It doesn't come up in conversation. Since most people don't know, it's more of I'll have to say it and then they don't believe me."

Vincent Tucker says they've learned a lot about themselves. "We came down a tradition of entrepreneurs. I'm in the moving business and I didn't realize that in the 1800s my uncle was in the moving business."

Tucker and his family want to know more. But the research is hard. "When we read or come across family members it may be listed as 'farming.' That's a nice word to say, 'you worked the fields as a slave.' They don't say it. We do a good job of cleaning things up in this state," Tucker notes.

"We're here because of them."

Still, Tucker wants to emphasize their story is one of 400 years of perseverance. "We're here because of them. And just like parents, mothers particularly, fathers do to, we make sacrifices for our kids. So, our ancestors sacrificed their lives, what they had little or great, for us to have a better life. And I think we do."

Next year Virginia will commemorate the 400th anniversary of these first Africans brought to what was then a British colony.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.