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

People’s Memorial Cemetery, a historic black burial ground in Petersburg, Virginia, dates back to 1840. The scanty evidence presented by the tombstones usually makes it hard to distinguish between monuments of free blacks, freed ones, or (if the date is appropriate) enslaved ones. The historical marker states that all three categories are present, and it’s worth knowing the status of the deceased, for my experience with the ancient Romans suggests that there might be interesting differences between the ways free and freed persons tell their stories.

Let’s dip our toes into these waters with the monument of Violet Pegram (figures 1, 2). I am no expert on the prosopography and demography of black Americans of the nineteenth century, but it is well worth thinking through the puzzles posed by their monuments.

The affectionate Mother of
Roberta Lewis
Died April 22, 1880,
Aged 65 Yrs.
She leaves 6 children to mourn
her absence.
“Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.”
Dearest mother thou hast left us,
Here thy loss we deeply feel;
But its God who hath bereft us,
He can all our sorrows heal.

Figure 2. Pegram monument. Inscription. People’s Memorial Cemetery, Petersburg, VA. Photo: author.

The Pegram monument teaches me three things. The first thing is that I’m pretty sure she was black given where she was buried, the evidence is equivocal as to her status. She was old enough to have been enslaved, while she died late enough to ensure she had been free for at least 15 years. There is no direct evidence one way or another.

Does it mean something that Roberta Lewis, whom I take to have been the commissioner of the monument, chose not to honor both her mother and father? Do the names help sort things out? Lewis seems to me to be Roberta’s married name, so there’s no reason not to think that Pegram was Violet’s married name, even if a Mr. Pegram is not mentioned. You see the problem: living on 15 years after slavery ended, Violet had time to marry under law (and change her name) even if she had been enslaved until 1865, assuming Mr. Pegram lived. Leaving behind six children strongly suggests an enduring and fairly lengthy connection. Still, there are numerous imponderables here.

Maybe we can go a little further with the second thing the monument teaches me. It is very conventional, with traditional appeals to piety (figure 2), and the very common image of a weeping willow (figure 3). What I mean by this is that were the Pegram monument not in People’s Memorial but across the street in Blandford Cemetery, there is nothing about it that would make you say, ‘ah, this is the monument of a black citizen.’

Figure 3. Pegram monument. Weeping willow. People’s Memorial Cemetery. Photo: author.

That’s a banality, of course. Tombstones rarely make a point of stating the race of the deceased: the audience for whom they were intended didn’t need to be told this. Subsidiary information may serve as a proxy for race, such as interment in People’s Memorial or, in the case of the Hoag monument across the street in Blandford (figure 4), the notice on the stone that he died fighting at Petersburg (overdetermined by the Confederate civil flag that the UDC had placed by the grave for Memorial Day).

Figure 4. Hoag monument. Blandford Cemetery, Petersburg, VA., Photo: author.

So we can control for race by comparing these two monuments, and they are closely analogous, which I find instructive. Each bears a willow at the top; and each bears a personal statement or two beyond anagraphical data telling us about them: Pegram that she was the mother of Roberta Lewis and that she was mourned by 6 children; Hoag that he died in battle.

But on both monuments the anagraphic and personal notices are followed by a Biblical quotation. In Pegram’s case, it’s Revelations 14:13 (“Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord”), whereas Hoag’s commemorator(s) chose John 11:25 (“I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live”). The appeals to the Bible to comfort the living about the status of the dead are close equivalents (right down to the same font), and in both cases, since they have the dignity of scripture, they stand above snatches of verse offered below.

The Pegram monument has an extremely common set of verses which have been adapted to the special case here that Violet was a mother:

Dearest mother thou hast left us,
Here thy loss we deeply feel;
But its God who hath bereft us,
He can all our sorrows heal.

Any two syllable word permitting stress on the first could be substituted for ‘mother,’ such as ‘husband.’ My favorite is the version on the monument of Pleasant Stith Roach in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond:

Farewell Stithy thou hast left us
We thy loss most deeply feel;
But tis God that hath bereft us
He can all our sorrows heal.

The Hoag commemorator(s) chose to draw four verses from a hymn by Joseph Barnby, formatted over seven lines:

Thou’rt gone to the Grave but ’twere
wrong to deplore thee,
When God was thy ransom, thy
guardian and guide.
He gave thee and took thee, and soon
will restore thee,
Where death has no sting, since the Savior has died.

Instead of Hoag’s stone I might have brought in any of a hundred others: from Mount Hebron in Winchester, or Hollywood in Richmond, or the Presbyterian Cemetery in Alexandria, or Green Mount in Baltimore, or Laurel Hill in Philadelphia, or Green-Wood in Brooklyn. Many more can instantly be found on line; for example, I’ve collected a gallery of weeping willow monuments here.

What I see, then, is a continuity in religious and funerary culture even across the racial divide: the “veil,” as W.E.B. Du Bois put it. On this admittedly tenuous basis I hesitantly think that Violet Pegram (and Roberta Lewis) were freeborn citizens; they seem to have the same expectations and manner of telling their story that free white citizens had. In other words, freedom (and all that freedom from birth brought) seems the driver in this similarity, since race, social status, and politics strongly divided Pegram and Hoag.

Yet every example I have in mind from the cemeteries I listed above is very different from the Pegram monument in one key way: whereas they are always from marble or limestone, Pegram’s has been cast in cement. That’s ‘super interesting,’ as we would have said in the 1970s.

Rather than the image of the tree and the words having been cut into stone, therefore, cement has been poured over molds with negatives of the text and images assembled into the overall design. One can easily see the coarser texture of the cement weathering through where it has lost its original smooth surface (see, e.g., figure 3). The cement hasn’t held up any worse than Hoag’s marble tablet, and the cost must have been a fraction.

Such cement markers are common in People’s Memorial; it suggests that Petersburg’s black citizens were predisposed to be cost effective in getting what their white neighbors across the street were willing and able to pay a premium for. But let’s remember, the folks in People’s Memorial were not competing socially with the Blandford people; they had separate and different audiences. If the Hoags are paying more for marble, it’s because the Joneses on one side and the Smiths on the other have opted for marble, and an analogous situation will have held in People’s Memorial.


Violet Pegram is recorded in the 1870 Census:

Name:Violet Pegram
Age in 1870:55
Birth Year:abt 1815
Dwelling Number:28
Home in 1870:Blackwater, Prince George, Virginia
Post Office:Garysville
Occupation:Keeping House
Cannot Read:Y
Cannot Write:Y
Inferred Spouse:Henry Pegram
Household Members:Name Age Henry Pegram 60 Violet Pegram 55 Roland Pegram 7 James Walker 9
Table 1. 1870 U.S. Census entry for Violet Pegram. From Ancestry dot com.

This reveals a great deal. First, I’m pretty sure I was wrong in conjecturing that Violet was born free. On Ancestry dot com the first census she appears in is 1870. This makes sense if she were not a citizen before 1865. She is listed as having an “inferred spouse,” Henry Pegram. For my part, I infer that theirs was a common law marriage that emerged from the years of slavery. Roland appears to be the son of Violet and Henry; I do not know about James Walker. Both children are listed as “mulatto,” but I’m well out of my depth in figuring out the legal implications of that designation. Roberta Lewis was already out of the household by 1870. I’ll return here after I’ve done some further research.

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Scranton, PA

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