Sacred Space: A Historic African American Cemetery in Hampton, Virginia
For years, it was a Tucker family tradition to bury their dead in a small, leafy cemetery in Hampton, Virginia. But they didn’t know the details of its oral history until one family member, Thelma Green Williams, started researching it. She learned it may have been the burial ground of William, whose birth around 1624 represented the first known African birth in the New World. His parents, Anthony and Isabella, are believed to have been some of the first Africans to be brought to the English Colonies 400 years ago. The area where they landed is now part of Fort Monroe, a National Treasure of the National Trust.
Thelma Green Williams died in 2006, but her work, which identified William as a possible ancestor, helped spur the family to take further steps to protect and preserve the property. “We found out it was purchased for $100 in 1896 by a group of friends,” says her cousin Carolita Jones Cope, shown above with other family members. “Thomas Tucker, my great-great-grandfather, was one of those. It was previously under the Old Dominion Land Company and was called the Old Colored Burial Ground.” The family commissioned a ground-penetrating radar scan in 2017 that located more than 100 graves, many of which had been unmarked. And early this year the state of Virginia passed a bill that made the cemetery, along with six other historic African American cemeteries in the area, eligible for maintenance funding.Now, the Tucker Cemetery—the site of an August event featuring speeches, song, and a traditional African libation ceremony that was part of Hampton’s official 2019 program commemorating the 400th anniversary of the African Landing—honors both its known and unknown dead. “We want to maintain whatever dignity there is with being in an unmarked grave,” Jones Cope says. “We want there to be an awareness of this sacred ground we’re trying to honor.”