Love Cemetery: Unburying the Secret History of Slaves

Love Cemetery: Unburying the Secret History of Slaves

by China Galland

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By the eve of the Civil War, there were four million slaves in North America, and Harrison County was the largest slave-owning county in Texas. So when China Galland returned to research her family history there, it should not have surprised her to learn of unmarked cemeteries for slaves. "My daddy never let anybody plow this end of the field," a local matron told a startled Galland during a visit to her antebellum mansion. "The slaves are buried there." Galland's subsequent effort to help restore just one of these cemeteries—Love Cemetery—unearths a quintessential American story of prejudice, land theft, and environmental destruction, uncovering racial wounds that are slow to heal.

Galland gathers an interracial group of local religious leaders and laypeople to work on restoring Love Cemetery, securing community access to it, and rededicating it to the memories of those buried there. In her attempt to help reconsecrate Love Cemetery, Galland unearths the ghosts of slavery that still haunt us today. Research into county historical records and interviews with local residents uncover two versions of history—one black, one white. Galland unpacks these tangled narratives to reveal a history of shame—of slavery and lynching, Jim Crow laws and land takings (the theft of land from African-Americans), and ongoing exploitation of the land surrounding the cemetery by oil and gas drilling. With dread she even discovers how her own ancestors benefited from the racial imbalance.

She also encounters some remarkable, inspiring characters in local history. Surprisingly, the original deed for the cemetery's land was granted not by a white plantation owner, but by Della Love Walker, the niece of the famous African-American cowboy Deadwood Dick. Through another member of the Love Cemetery committee, Galland discovers a connection to Marshall's native son, James L. Farmer, a founder of Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and organizer of the 1961 Freedom Riders. In researching local history, Galland also learns of the Colored Farmers' Alliance, a statewide group formed in the 19th century that took up issues ranging from low wages paid to cotton pickers to emigration to Liberia.

By telling this one story of ultimate interracial and intergenerational cooperation, Galland provides a model of the kind of communal remembering and reconciliation that can begin to heal the deep racial scars of an entire nation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061748752
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/13/2009
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 106,854
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Born and raised in Texas, China Galland is the award-winning author of Longing for Darkness and The Bond Between Women. She received a Hedgebrook Writers Invitational Residency and has won awards for her writing from the California Arts Council. Galland is a professor in residence at the Center for the Arts, Religion, and Education at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, where she directs the Keepers of Love Project. She lectures, teaches, and leads retreats nationally and internationally on religion, race, and reconciliation.

Read an Excerpt

Love Cemetery
Unburying the Secret History of Slaves

Chapter One

Getting into Love Cemetery

They are not powerless, the dead.
Chief Seattle,
Suquamish and Duwamish Native American leader

The road that leads to Love Cemetery is deeply rutted red clay and sand, and it winds for well over a mile through open fields and stands of East Texas pine until it arrives at a ten-foot-high chain-link gate just a couple hundred yards from the graveyard. On a chilly late winter morning in March 2003, the fence seemed impenetrable, with heavy metal chain woven around the steel end-poles clamped shut with a big brass combination lock. Mrs. Nuthel Britton, guardian and caretaker of Love Cemetery, had been given the combination, but the lock would not yield. This was a new fence, a new gate, and a new lock, and therefore, Mrs. Britton suspected, a new owner too. The 3,500 acres surrounding the old, overgrown cemetery, which she had rediscovered in the mid-1990s, had been cut up and sold off again. Whoever bought this parcel had fenced the cemetery in. The combination Nuthel had been given must have been for an old lock on the outer gate, the first one we'd come to. There was no fence attached to it; that one was just a free-standing gate. The deep ruts around it indicated that the fence had been taken down years ago. We drove past that first gate and continued on until this second gate stopped us. Now Nuthel stood there with Doris Vittatoe, who also had ancestors buried in Love Cemetery, and me, trying to solve this puzzle. This second gate was big enough for an East Texas logging truck to drivethrough—if you had the combination. We didn't.

A manganese blue sky shone through the pines and the bare branches of a few red oaks that still grew here. The bright sun took the chill off the air. The quiet of the morning was broken by the resonant calls of mockingbirds, mourning doves, and a warbler. The familiar rat-a-tat-tat of a red-headed woodpecker echoed from deep in the woods.

We shook our heads, thwarted by the new lock. At seventy-nine, Nuthel—as she insisted we call her—was still lean, tall, and active. Doris, about twenty years younger, had an elegant oval face with big dark eyes. Like Nuthel, she mowed her own yard and worked in the garden, staying trim and fit. Nuthel wore a long-sleeved red sweatshirt and an army camouflage hat. As secretary of the Love Colored Burial Association, she was "the Keeper of Love." Nuthel had wanted to show us the cemetery, but she was blocked this morning. Legally, she had every right to be there, and so did Doris. The land belongs to the dead in Texas. Cemeteries cannot be sold or transferred. In 1904 a local landowner named Della Love had deeded this 1.6 acre parcel to the Love Colored Burial Association. In turn, the Burial Association secured a permanent easement to use the road to the cemetery. Someone from the timber management company that once owned the larger, surrounding parcel had given Nuthel the combination to the lock some years before, but the property had changed hands many times in recent years—from a timber company to an insurance conglomerate to whomever the current owner was.

Last Nuthel knew the timber was owned by an East Coast insurance company. "It must have changed hands again," she said, matter-of-factly. That would explain the fancy new fence and new lock. "Whatever they got in there, they don't want it to get out, that's for sure," she said with a chuckle.

She pulled up her sweatshirt to get to her pants pocket and fished around. With a straight face and a solemn air, she pulled out a small strip of paper with the combination number written on it, glanced at it, then shot us a smile. Nuthel had an inscrutable face that I was only learning to read. She was a great tease. "Hmmm," she said, shaking her head and chuckling, puzzled, "I see here that I put in the right numbers," she paused. "Only thing is, it's the wrong lock."

A rifle shot cracked in the distance and startled me, a city dweller. Nuthel and Doris paid it little attention.

"Somebody's back in there huntin', I bet," Nuthel remarked with another big smile, as Doris nodded. "It's nothing. You're just not used to it," they assured me. Hunting was still a way of life here. We had passed a deserted duck blind and an empty hunting camp on the dirt road coming in.

"Look," I said, "I'm going to get some folding chairs out of the trunk of my car. You can sit here in front of this locked gate; I'll take your picture and interview you right here. The picture alone will tell a big part of the story."

But when I brought the chairs back, I noticed that there was something strange about the gate. It didn't look right, it wasn't straight—something was awry. "Wait a minute," I said. I looked at the hinge on the right and—sure enough—the gate had been lifted off its hinges and opened from the side. Maybe someone had slipped inside and was poaching. That would explain the rifle shots we had heard even though hunting season was over. I pointed out this opening to my companions.

"Since you have family buried back there, you two have a right to go in," I said, "at least that was how the attorney explained it to me."

They considered this a moment. Then Nuthel grinned and clasped her hands together, "And you're with us, China," she said, "so you can come too."

"Well, that would be my logic," I said, laughing.

Doris nodded in agreement. "Of course."

We picked up the gate and inched it open just wide enough for us to slip in one by one. We laughed like schoolgirls, excited by our unexpected adventure. As soon as we were on the other side we pushed the gate back just as we'd found it, so close to the pole that it looked all the way shut.

Love Cemetery
Unburying the Secret History of Slaves
. Copyright © by China Galland. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Table of Contents

Prologue     1
Getting into Love Cemetery     9
How We Got to Love     27
The First Cleanup of Love Cemetery     49
Borderlands, Badlands, and the Neutral Ground     69
"Guide Me Over"     105
The Reconsecration of Love Cemetery     135
"You Got to Stay on Board"     151
Shiloh     187
Underneath the Surface     205
Funeral Home Records of Burials     231
Love Cemetery Burial Map and List     232
Epilogue     235
Acknowledgments     243
Notes     249
Bibliography     261
Resources     265
Credits     275

What People are Saying About This

Bill Moyers

The riveting story of a remarkable effort . . . when done, you will have discovered the healing power of Love Cemetery.

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Love Cemetery: Unburying the Secret History of Slaves 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
cestovatela on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
When China Galland, a white woman, begins researching her ancestry in East Texas, she stumbles across the story of Love Cemetery, an African-American burial ground rendered inaccessible by the timber company that owns the surrounding land. So begins her crusade to help the descendant community regain access to the land where their ancestors are buried, reconsecrate the cemetery and share its story. I think this book may have been the victim of its jacket copy, which promised an investigation of the lives of freed black slaves in Texas as well as the story of the reclaimed graveyard. I imagined the sort of journalistic history books I love, the kind that weave back and forth between an engaging present narrative and a detailed survey of the historical conditions which spawned it. Instead, although the book offers a few intriguing glimpses at life in post-Reconstruction Texas, the overwhelming focus is on the story of the cemetery, which is not quite gripping enough to justify 240 pages. What makes this book worth reading is Galland's candid acknowledgment of the challenges of modern-day mixed-race friendships. Although the black church community first seems to accept her without reservation, the closer Galland grows to them, the more she sees that the wounds of Jim Crow taint her friendship with older African-Americans. She never tries to offer easy answers and the book's open-ended conclusion does justice to the complexity of the issue.Bottom line: this is a good book but not a great one. If you are interested in Southern history or modern race relations, you will probably enjoy it, but others shouldn't go out of their way to read it.
schatzi on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This wasn't the book that I thought it was going to be when I read the back cover. I was expecting more of a historical exploration of freed slaves in Texas, or perhaps how their descendants were faring, or...something like that. Instead, I got a memoir that really should have been condensed into a few-page article, to be honest.The author hops around everywhere - her own history, antebellum Texas, the Jim Crow laws, land deeds, land theft, the people buried there, their descendants, and her own feelings. Wow, does she spend a lot of time on her own feelings. I swear, she spent more time discussing a misunderstanding she had with one of the descendants than anything else. The author also spends a lot of time talking about her "guilt." I can't remember if her family owned slaves (I am thinking no), but she said that they profited from a world where slavery, and Jim Crow, happened. I honestly don't get why she feels guilty. If SHE were racist, yeah, that's something to be guilty about. But no one is responsible for what their ancestors did. If that were the case, whenever I met a German I would expect them to apologize to me - which I don't. It's one thing to say, "Hey, I'm sorry what my ancestors did to yours." It's another to internalize that and make it your own guilt. Maybe I'm odd, but I don't get it, and I don't get why the author really struggled with it, and it mired down the book.I really think that the book would have benefited from either a better author or a better editor. Perhaps both. I wanted to like the book, because the potential subject matter was fascinating, but I ended up learning little. I was glad to put it down when I was finished.
Groovybaby on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An interesting read about delicate moments of social understanding brought forth from the physical unearthing of a small part of this country's very ugly past. I enjoyed reading about how a small group of dedicated people of differing ancestry gathered what rescources they had to save an important piece of American history from the brink of certain ruin. I also enjoyed the author's efforts as a white woman to appricate and honor the cultures of the people buried at Love Cemetery in spite of her own ancestors misdeeds. However I thought the book which started strongly as a historical reference got a little bogged down near the middle by the author's personal feelings. I would have liked the book to have continued more as a record of history and less as a memoir but that could just be my taste in books, I really can not fault the author for that. Overall, the book was informative and worth reading if for nothing else, the fact that now I want to learn more.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A nice community service project gets a heavy-handed over- long treatment. Not sure what the publisher was thinking.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
a beautiful historical account of a very ugly subject.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Stanley stopped by Natalies grave, wishing he had told her he loved her.