Mr. History Tourist snorted when I told him that Old City Cemetery in Lynchburg, Virginia is that town’s most popular tourist site. How sorry must a town be, was his thinking, if the best they can offer a tourist is an old cemetery. Mr. HT is an HT by marriage, not by inclination, so he doesn’t get the nirvana that is an old cemetery. I, on the other hand, often head straight to the local cemetery as soon as I get to a town, so I completely understand where the rest of those Lynchburg tourists are coming from.
All that to say that he was not heartbroken when he got a headache and had to skip the cemetery. I was on my own.
The Old City Cemetery in Lynchburg is one of the oldest in the US still in use. Established in 1806, it was a public cemetery that was open to all.
I parked just within the gates, where there was a rack of brochures about different aspects of the cemetery. There was a walking tour of the cemetery, a quick guide to the cemetery, a Civil War guide to the cemetery, a guide to the gravestones in the cemetery, and a guide to Black history in the cemetery. And those were just the ones I took. There were a dozen more titles.
Juggling brochures, I began my cemetery wander. The section near the entrance is the oldest and is mostly African American. Old City was the only cemetery in town that allowed blacks until the late 19th century. “As late as 1925,” says a marker in the cemetery, “9 out of 10 African-Americans who died in Lynchburg were interred in the City Cemetery.” The hand-chiseled stone above, for 2-year-old Terriz Wallace, is the oldest original marker still standing in the cemetery.
Blind Billy (1805-1855) was an African-American musician and local celebrity. I was taken with the carving at the top of his tombstone, which is of a broken fife.
The white section of the cemetery, behind high brick walls, has the obligatory Confederate graves and monument. There had also been a Union section, at one time, called Yankee Square, filled with POWs who had died in Lynchburg hospitals. They were dug up by the Union after the war and moved north. Recently, though, an archaeological dig in Yankee Square unearth more Confederates, buried in unmarked graves. They were all smallpox victims, hastily buried. The cemetery is now trying to identify and mark each grave.
There’s a section for animals, with a statue of St. Francis of Assisi anchoring its center. The statue is the usual, so I’ll show you Drain instead. Drain is the very-much-alive cemetery cat. The volunteer in the visitor center didn’t know how he had gotten that name.
There are several exhibit buildings — a doctor’s office/medical museum, a hearse house and caretaker’s museum, and a train station museum — of which, according to their website, there are tours by appointment. That wasn’t on the table when I was there and I had to make do with peering through a window. There was a button at each window and when I pressed it, a tinny voice pointed out items of interest inside. I was there on a sunny day and the glare made if difficult to see in. I gave up half way through the first recording.
What I did get into and what was absolutely wonderful was their mourning museum. But you’ll have to wait until the next post to hear about that.