Hickory Hill Slave and African American Cemetery

Hickory Hill Slave and African American Cemetery
Hickory Hill Slave and African American Cemetery

Photograph by Brad McDonald, Lena McDonald, and Joanna Wilson Green, courtesy of Virginia SHPO

Quick Facts
Providence Church Road Ashland, Virginia
Ethnic Heritage/Black, Archeology/Historic/ Non-aboriginal
Listed in the National Register – Reference number 100005427
The Hickory Hill Slave and African American Cemetery comprises approximately 4.25 acres of property. The cemetery is west of the antebellum Hickory Hill plantation in Hanover County, Virginia, a short distance east of the town of Ashland. Exceptionally well-documented in historic records, the cemetery provides a window into the changing lives of African American families who have maintained ties to the cemetery from its beginning up to the present day. Due to its setting within a heavily wooded area, the cemetery’s location retains a rural feeling, but the environs are transitioning to suburban as new development sprawls eastward. The Hickory Hill Slave and African American Cemetery includes at least 149 burials, and was in use as early as 1820. It remained an active cemetery until at least 1938, based upon the date inscribed on a headstone placed in memory of a member of the Abrams family. Several yucca plants, a species traditional to rural African American burial grounds, are located on the eastern side of the cemetery. Within the fenced area, the cemetery acreage is characterized by a mix of softwood and hardwood tree species, including white oak, birch, Eastern red cedar, hickory, and white and yellow pine, with an understory of holly, dogwood, greenbrier, and privet. Multiple fallen trees, many with exposed root balls, are present. Well-established mats of periwinkle are found throughout.

The Hickory Hill Slave and African American Cemetery is within the historic boundary of Hickory Hill, a former plantation that was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. A short distance south of the cemetery is the site of one of the clusters of housing for enslaved African Americans. A small freedmen’s community was established in the same vicinity by the late 19th century and remained occupied until the mid-20th century. The cemetery's significance is derived from its direct association with the African American historical experience in rural Virginia during slavery, through the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, and into the mid-twentieth century. Exceptionally well-documented in historic records, the cemetery provides a window into the changing lives of African American families who have maintained ties to the cemetery from its beginning up to the present day.

Interments appear as both marked gravesites and grave depressions, and are scattered throughout the enclosed area. An earlier delineation survey identified approximately 149 probable interments, and it is quite likely that additional interments exist.  All gravesites and grave depressions appear to be oriented generally east-west.The cemetery retains integrity of design as a burial ground loosely organized by family groupings and reflects the necessarily informal character of antebellum cemeteries for enslaved African Americans, who generally had little control over how interments were conducted and how the burial ground was marked and maintained. 

There is a rare depth of documentation of enslaved persons buried here. Much of this is due to the “Plantation Diaries” kept from September 1828 until 29 January 1864 by William Fanning (W. F.) Wickham, who meticulously recorded names and dates of death of enslaved persons, as well as (frequently but not always) kinship, and, in some cases estimates of age. W. F. Wickham’s lists of enslaved African Americans at Hickory Hill recorded a total of 268 individuals. Wickham’s 8-volume collection of diaries is now housed at the research library of the Virginia Museum of History and Culture in Richmond, Virginia. 

Although the Wickham diaries do not begin until 1828, the earliest known burial at the Hickory Hill Slave and African American Cemetery dates to c. 1820. Given that Hickory Hill’s lands had been farmed by European colonists since before the American Revolution, earlier burials may have occurred here. The cemetery is located barely south of the historic border between the Hickory Hill and South Wales plantations, raising the possibility that enslaved people from South Wales also may be buried here. Encompassing nearly 3,500 acres at its height, Hickory Hill was one of the largest plantations in central Virginia by 1860. Along with grain crops, the enslaved workers cultivated a wide array of fruits and vegetables, likely for consumption on the plantation rather than as cash crops. A small amount of tobacco was grown as well, but it was never a premier staple crop at Hickory Hill. 

The Civil War came to Hickory Hill during the spring of 1862, first in the form of requisitions for materials from the Confederate Army. In March, W. F. Wickham recorded that he had been required to furnish four mules, for which he was compensated $500. Less than two weeks later, the Confederates returned, this time to impress fifteen young male African Americans into service. After the Battle of Hanover Court House on May 27, 1862, W. F. Wickham wrote in his diary, a search of the slave dwellings at Hickory Hill turned up 5 muskets that had been left behind by Confederate troops from North Carolina, indicating that at least a few of the enslaved workers at Hickory Hill thought it wise to arm themselves, despite that it was illegal for any enslaved person to own a weapon. W. F. Wickham recorded two lists of enslaved people who left Hickory Hill to join Union troops. By the war’s end, nearly 200 of Hickory Hill’s enslaved African Americans had left the plantation. Given the opportunity, they had voted with their feet to leave slavery and seek opportunities elsewhere. 

Additional documentation survives concerning the freedmen’s communities established near Hickory Hill during Reconstruction, the 1870s founding of Providence Baptist Church by emancipated African Americans, and the establishment of a school (historically known as Hickory Hill School and as Wickham School) during the Jim Crow era of segregation. A descendants’ community of those directly related to the persons buried at the Hickory Hill Slave and African American Cemetery has maintained ties to the cemetery to the present day. 

The scope of the Hickory Hill Slave and African American Cemetery’s significance increases after the Civil War due to the cemetery’s continued use for more than fifty years as part of several nearby communities established by freedmen and women during Reconstruction. After emancipation, African Americans pursued a range of personal and communal objectives. Perhaps first among these was to establish familial bonds that had been disrupted during slavery by separation of children from parents and spouses from one another. Orphaned children and infirm elderly also were brought into kinship networks. African Americans now had far greater opportunities for personal movement, which might include moving from a rural to an urban area in search of job opportunities, or moving from former Confederate states to northern or western locales with better economic conditions. However, numerous descendants of slaves chose to remain relatively close to where they had lived prior to the war and formed their own communities. These Reconstruction Era communities once were found across rural Virginia, but have become increasingly rare since the mid-20th century as population growth and suburban/exurban development have remade large swaths of former farmland. On the edges of Hickory Hill Plantation freedmen and -women whose ancestors had been enslaved established three new communities: Canaan, Middletown, and Newtown.

Through the twentieth century, as their own fortunes dwindled, the Wickhams sold parts of their extensive land holdings. The Wickhams also stopped allowing burials at the Slave and African American Cemetery sometime in the mid-twentieth century. Thereafter, burials took place at the Providence Baptist Church a short distance south of the old plantation. The church was founded in 1875 by freedpeople; it remains an active congregation today.

Generations of families associated with Hickory Hill and the Slave and African American Cemetery can be traced back to the early 19th century, a rare circumstance for those whose ancestors were enslaved due to the paucity of records concerning their lives. After emancipation, these families established their own communities near Hickory Hill and in nearby Ashland, entered the paid workforce, built and ran the Shiloh, Union, and Providence Baptist churches, and supported and attended schools such as the Hickory Hill/ Wickham School. Many of the persons buried in the Hickory Hill Slave and African American Cemetery have descendants who still live in the area today. 

Last updated: December 14, 2021