Figure 1. Robinson monument, 1895. People’s Memorial Cemetery, Petersburg, VA. Photo: author.

The beautiful tombstone of Rebecca Robinson was to my eye the most attractive of the many treasures in People’s Memorial Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia. The cemetery, for those who don’t know it, sits on land that was purchased before the Civil War by Petersburg’s free black citizens. It offers a rich picture of black society in Petersburg right up to the present, though most of the burials are from the nineteenth century.

Figure 2. People’s Memorial Cemetery historical marker. People’s Memorial Cemetery, Petersburg, VA. Photo: author.

To return to Rebecca Robinson’s monument, I was immediately attracted by the grayish chestnut color and smooth texture of the limestone which nevertheless bears the many marks of a century and a quarter of existence. I assume from the inscription her husband cut it at home.

Figure 3. Robinson monument. Dedication inscription. People’s Memorial Cemetery, Petersburg, VA. Photo: author.

The cutter carefully measured off the stone and calculated the spacing of the words in the dedication (figure 3). His straight strokes are confident and have a V-shaped profile that catches the noonday sun well. Irregularities in his work suggest he wasn’t a trained cutter. See, for example, how his work becomes less sure when he encounters curves. After he carefully centered the phrase ‘IN MEMORY OF,’ one wonders why he chose not to center ‘MY WIFE.’

The stone is a bit brittle. See how the stone chipped and gave way as he cut the second ‘M’, the third ‘M’, the ‘W,’ and at other points in the inscription.

Figure 4. Robinson monument. Anagraphic inscription. People’s Memorial Cemetery, Petersburg, VA. Photo: author.

All of the letters in the anagraphic inscription (figure 4) are rather smaller than those in the dedication; a high proportion of curved letters has presented the cutter with many challenges. The ordination of the text is good, though it wavers a little in the first line. As always, the straight lines are confident, and the first ‘C’ in line 1 is actually quite fine, with serifs. The curved numbers were particularly difficult, as were all occurrences of the letter ‘S.’ The ‘7’ is particularly fine with its elegant descending stroke.

Interesting is the abbreviation ‘1th.’ Before computers, cutters had a text handed to them and they then either formatted it on the stone with pencil or chalk or they cut immediately by eye. Our cutter seems to have followed the latter course. It seems unlikely that whoever wrote the text would have deliberately offered ‘1th.’ Might the cutter have omitted a digit from a longer number, such as 11th, or 17th, which abbreviates with ‘-th’? Was he tripped up because most ordinal numbers abbreviate to ‘-th’? That is, was he so focused on his work that he absent-mindedly went for the default abbreviation instead of ‘-st’?

On the other hand, as a cutter works he reads bits of text and then moves to the stone. In other words, he cuts what he hears in his head while he repeats the words in his mind, and he hears them the way he says them. Might he have spoken the letter ‘T’ with the tip of his tongue butting up against the back of his front teeth, giving it a ‘th’ sound? “Firsth.” A linguist familiar with the accents of Petersburg could probably resolve this.

Interesting, too, is that the cutter chose to place a period after ’27,’ where ’27th’ would have worked fine. There was enough room in the lines in question so that he didn’t need to abbreviate one way or the other.

It was fine work for someone who was not a trained stonecutter, and laboring moreover under a burden of grief, as his wife had died at the age of 32. But unfortunately for him, his grief was only just beginning. There is a second stone in identical material alongside Rebecca’s, seemingly cut by the same hand.

Figure 5. L. Robinson monument, 1895. People’s Memorial Cemetery, Petersburg, VA. Photo: author.

The second stone is tipped a bit forward so that it did not catch the light as well as Rebecca’s. The characters, even those with rectilinear lines, are in general less monumental than those in Rebecca’s inscription. The ordination is crisp, however, and letters like ‘S’ and numbers like ‘8’ are better formed here.

The easiest (but not inevitable) conclusion is that Rebecca was Leslie’s mother. Leslie was born on February 23, 1895, and her mother died on September 27. For whatever reason, Leslie soon followed on October 11. Whether the baby’s death was a surprise or came as a result of birth complications that also killed the mother, we cannot know. If this reconstruction is correct, the husband and father had a terrible burden to bear in that fateful year. Of his grave, I found no evidence.

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Arlington, VA

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