Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.

Henry David Thoreau

Being Part of a Pilgrimage

Saturday October 6, 2018                                               Most Recent Posts:
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In July of this year, 100 area residents boarded a bus for a pilgrimage from Charlottesville, Virginia to Montgomery Alabama with two purposes.

First purpose, to deliver soil from the site of John Herny James lynching just outside of Charlottesville in 1898 to the Montgomery Alabama collection at the Equal Justice Initiative, which opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in commemoration of the nation’s lynchings earlier this year.  Secondly to understand the relationship between Charlottesville’s 2017 summer of hate and our town and the country’s long history of racial terrorism.  

After reading accounts of this moving pilgrimage I am sorry to have missed it.  I am proud of my fellow citizens for orgnizing this and bring such lost history to the forefront.  I am sure there is more to be discovered, reclaimed and owned.  There are several good articles on the bus tour.  The best and most moving was sensitively written by Lisa Provance and published by Cville on July 18th.  Here’s the link.   The Washington Post covered the pre gathering at the lynching site in this article.

I will admit to having no small amount of white guilt for what my country and fellow citizens did in the past and continue to do in the present to both Native Americans and Black Americans.  I did not personally do any of these things and neither did members of my family for the 3 generations I can trace.  Still, though not a member of the 1% by a long run,  I am a member of the priviledged class and it is high time we all took a look at what it is and has been like for those on the outside of this protection.

A second pilgrimage is scheduled for October 6 to 13.  I am only able to attend the first of the three events that make up the Pilgrimage of Transformation.   My Mohs surgery makes the other two not possible for me.  In hindsight I realize I should have cancelled the surgery, gone on the full Pilgrimage and rescheduled to have the carcinoma taken care of by a plastic surgeon.  If you want to read more about that, you can find it in my previous post.  That link is in blue at the top of this page.

On Saturday October 6, a group gathered for a 4 mile pilgrimage from the 1895 Jefferson School, the first school for Black children in this area, to the Slave Graveyard at Monticello.  The march is orgnized and sponsored by the Charlottesville Clergy Collective, made up of over 50 religious leaders of the community, in response to the violance of the summer of 2017 in Charlottesville.  I was not here during those days and was shocked to see how the poison of racism can infect, divide and kill.  Like many other long time members of this community I did not realize the extent of the racism in the history of the city and county. 

The Reverand Liz Emery with New Beginnings Christian Community and a member of the Clergy Collective talks about “racism” in America as “prejudice sanctioned by institutional power that upholds a white supremacist value system.  She tells us, “This racism first decimated the indigenous American Indians and then enslaved people of African and Caribbean descent. As people of faith, we know that we cannot move forward as a healed community without first telling the truth about our past, acknowledging our long history of racism, and turning from it.”

This march is a part of those goals.  We are marching to honor the work of slaves in the building of our city, the University of Virginia and Thomas Jefferson’s home Monticello.  We are marching to remember the Auction Block in Charlottesville.  We are marching to remember the names of the 400 slaves of Monticello. Many of us are marching in recognition that the remnants of slavery still exist in our society, our institutions and in too many hearts.


We march through Charlottesville passing the sites of last summer’s confrontation between resurgent white supremacists and our community.  We pass Market Street Park where a marker is proposed to remember the July 12, 1898 lynching of John Henry James in 1898 and the court square site where enslaved persons were auctioned.



We fill the sidewalks as we approach the lunch break stop at Belmont Baptist Church where food trucks are available if you didn’t pack a lunch.



At Monticello we gather at the site of the African American Burial Ground which was identifed by Archeological investigations in 2001 as a slave burial ground.  Men, women, and children who lived in slavery at Monticello from 1770 to 1827 are believed to have been buried here.


The graveyard was a visible and readily accessible  part of the Monticello landscape.  It was situated on a road that linked Monticello Montaintop with a public road to Charlottesville.  The graveyard’s location was away from slave dwellings at the edges of plantation fields and on Mulberry Row.

Below this diagram of the graveyard, the archeology of its discovery is explained.


Gayle Jessup White, a decendent of family enslaved on the plantation here, is now employed by Monticello in bringing the lives of her ancestors to light.  She tells us “I am proud to walk in their footsteps because I work here at Monticello where they labored.”

She explains that almost four hundred persons lived in slavery at Monticello over a sixty-year-period and well over forty graves are estimated to be within this area. Some of the graves have un-inscribed fieldstones at the head or foot, but there are no surviving markers. 

We leave the cemetery and walk on up the mountain to Mulberry Row, the location of the slave cabins at Monticello.


We arrive to find music being played on the most popular of instruments owned by slaves, the violin/fiddle..  The music chosen has been researched as that most likely to have been played here during the years in question.


We hear family stories from decendents of the slaves who lived and worked here.  Gayle Jessup White and  Calvin Jefferson share stories passed down through generations in their families;  stories which eventually were researched and led to the ongoing recovery of the lives of these people and their connection to Thomas Jefferson and Monticello.


As we gather to listen, small pieces of compostable paper implanted with seeds are given two to each person.  Written on each paper is the name of a slave of Monticello.


We are asked to take them home and plant them in memory of those whose lives are being resurrected and remembered.


And then comes the reading of the names.  Because of Thomas Jefferson’s detailed accounts of everything at Monticello, the names of these 400 people are known and are read one by one as the conclusion to the pilgrimage.  They have been buried here as property but today they are honored as people vital to this place in their time.    Members of the Charlottesville Clergy Collective step to the microphone and read a list of names until all 400 have been spoken aloud.

The man in the foreground is filming this short local TV video of highlights of the Pilgrimage and the reading of the names.


These are the  names read out one at a time.  The men and women and children of Monticello.

This has been a solem occasion and before we leave, we are told about the Contemplative Place that Monticello intends to create here on Mulberry Row to honor these 400 people, a site dedicated to their memory and identifying the names of the individuals.  The exact design and location has not yet been determined.  I hope to return and see the finished memorial.

IMG_3261Walking back down the mountain, some of us stop by the Jefferson Family Cemetery.
A very different spot from the one we have just seen.   Whether the descendents of Sally Hemmings children whom historians say, after results of 1998 DNA tests, were likely fathered by Thoms Jefferson, will be permitted to be buried here or will the Slave Graveyard be expanded for them does not seem to be much of an issue any longer.  There are still those members of the Monticello Association who will not accept the apparent facts but things are improving as is seen with this pilgrimage, the inclusion of the Slave stories in the tours at Monticello and the planned memorial.   The most recent article I read about the decendents was this one
from the New York Times June 16, 2018

IMG_3262The Charlottesville Clergy Collective had planned two other pilgrimages which I wish I had attended.    On Friday October 12, participants traveled by bus to Richmond to walk the trail taken by enslaved people who were transported from ships to a holding jail and then to the auction block.  On Saturday, October 13, the Journey of Transformation concluded as participants tour Jamestown National Park for a First Africans tour, and then moved on to a sunset service at Fort Monroe, where the first ship brought enslaved Africans to this shore almost 400 years ago.

I’m proud of my little city and especially the Clergy Collective for  its efforts to recognize all of its history.  It was humbling to be a part of even this one event.


  1. Thank you for such a well written and thoughtful post, Sherry. I have to say that when the atrocities happened in Charlottesville, I somehow never connected that city with "your" city. I have no idea why. Maybe because I couldn't imagine the two places being the same, since you are probably the least racist person that I know. Thank you again for writing about this.

  2. Thanks Sherri for the informative review of Monticello.If you ever make your way to Wallace,La. be sure to visit Whitney Plantation on the banks of the Mississippi.

  3. This was wonderful, Sherry. Thank you.

  4. Well-written, thoughtful and informative. It is amazing the prejudice that lies hidden even in a city as progressive as Charlottesville. I am glad you were able to participate in at least one of the pilgramileges and hope the honoring and remembering continues as we strive to make this world a kinder, fairer and better place for all.

  5. Well written post, thoughtful and insightful. Thank you.

  6. Thank you Sherry for this story of sadness over way too much time. I am glad to see the "other side" of these stories being told, especially by descendants. Yet saddened that the hate continues.

  7. Sobering to say the least. We must learn from history. Too many people aren't, and they go out with tiki torches and scream,'blood and soil' and pander to their own hatred.

  8. We visited Monticello years ago and none of this was presented. It's good to see that history, with all its warts and faults is being told, and honoring those poor individuals that had been lost to history for so many years.

  9. What a powerful experience it must have been to take part in the pilgrimage, particularly in these troubled times when prejudice and racism have once again reared their ugly heads. I'm glad to see that those who have been suppressed can tell their stories and honor their ancestors. Thank you for writing about this in such a thoughtful way.

  10. Having visited Monticello some years ago gave me an idea of where Murlberry Row is. Now with your pilgrimage experience, it has given me another ray of light on those who had been forgotten but were so much part of history. Only you can write such a big topic these days in a very insightful and thoughful way. Thank you Sherry for sharing your experience. Well done.


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