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Love Cemetery: Unburying the Secret History of Slaves

Love Cemetery: Unburying the Secret History of Slaves

3.7 3
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


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.

Editorial Reviews

Slavery was a grievous wrong, but the pain it began did not stop with Emancipation. Since then, the history of African Americans has been bulldozed over repeatedly in communities that they helped sustain. In Love Cemetery, China Galland writes movingly about a grassroots reclamation project in her own small East Texas community. Her account of the cleanup and reconsecration of a formerly unmarked slave burial ground stands as the focal point of a rich anecdotal history of good people searching for dignity, love, and a final resting place.
Publishers Weekly

Galland chronicles the restoration and reconsecration of an African-American cemetery in her East Texas childhood hometown in this inspirational first-person account. The author, who is white, uncovers a fragment of local history in the process of her participation in an interracial group of people who from 2003 to 2006 convened a series of "work parties" at the cemetery—hacking at weeds, repairing gravestones and making offerings to the ancestors. Galland reports the meetings, church services and potluck suppers she joins in around the communal cleanup of Love Cemetery, which may date back to the 1830s. She portrays the Boy Scout troop, various clergy, parishioners and the community elders ("keepers of the group memory") involved in the effort, with especially nuanced portraits of two African-American women, Doris Vittatoe (a direct descendant of a man buried there) and Nuthel Britton (the unofficial cemetery caretaker). Galland (The Bond Between Women,1998), who leads spiritual retreats, was acutely aware of "the dissonance between the black and white experience of life in America," but comes to her own "understanding that enormous change happens through tiny choices." Despite some slack passages, this fresh if not always coherent tale will appeal to women readers eager for an uplifting story. (June)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

This is the story of Galland's (The Bond Between Women: A Journey to Fierce Compassion) involvement in restoring a rural African American burial ground in east Texas. While researching black history in her hometown of Dallas, Galland became interested in slave cemeteries and heard about the abandoned Love Cemetery in Harrison County. Although black farmers had owned the surrounding land after the Civil War, by the early 20th century, whites effectively gained control of the area through such means as illegal seizure as payment for debts. Later, the logging industry took over the land and prevented descendants from visiting the gravesites. Galland brought together many volunteers of varying races, ages, and faiths to restore the cemetery in a series of cleanups. As a white woman, she became unsure of her role in leading the restoration but never gave up hope that the cemetery could be used to further racial reconciliation. Her book brings attention to the history of black Texans and demonstrates the importance of restoring slave cemeteries. Recommended for African American history collections in public libraries.
—Kathryn Stewart

Kirkus Reviews
A white writer who seems to have a wrenching epiphany on every page helps some black residents of east Texas clean up an abandoned, overgrown cemetery. In The Bond Between Women (1998), Galland circled the globe to meet activists battling child prostitution, illiteracy, pollution and death squads. Here, she hangs around Texas to learn that racism is bad, that we all ought to get along and that Jesus is the way. It's not a step forward in her work. She begins with a childhood memory of a spooky old house in her grandmother's Dallas neighborhood, occupied by a weird white woman who once kept her Negro gardener prisoner in the attic. Galland says she learned then that in matters of race "the white narrative dominates and prevails and discredits and trivializes" other stories. Shifting to the east Texas countryside, she launches into the story of how she and some local black women went out to a cemetery named for the Love family (no one seemed to know who currently owned it), saw what a mess it was and decided to do something about it. The author started reading histories of Africa, the slave trade and Texas, doing interviews, conducting research in the county courthouse and historical society, arranging for videography. She attended the local Baptist church and found the congregation's religious enthusiasm infectious, even revelatory. She helped round up volunteers to attack the wilderness reclaiming the cemetery. Throughout, Galland assumes readers know nothing about American racial history: She summarizes key moments in the civil-rights movement and tells us that during the Middle Passage "life in the ship's hold was pure hell." Though she says it's dehumanizing to refer to people inslavery as "slaves," her subtitle does just that. When she has a falling out with one of the black women working on the project, her self-flagellation and White Guilt reach epic proportions. An overwrought, highly sentimental account of a worthy community service project.
“A moving and inspiring account of race and history in a small town.”
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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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.

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.

Meet 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.

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Love Cemetery: Unburying the Secret History of Slaves 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
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.