Figure 1. Virginia State Historical Marker, People’s Memorial Cemetery, Petersburg, VA. Photo: author.

As one can see from the historical marker reproduced in figure 1, People’s Memorial Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia is an extremely important historical and cultural site. Here I wish to talk a bit about what I consider to be its artistically most significant monument, that of the Reverend Leonard A. Black (1820-1883: figure 2).

Figure 2. Black plot. People’s Memorial Cemetery, Petersburg, VA. Photo: author.

There are quite a few plots that are generously proportioned in People’s Memorial; Black’s is not atypical. The monument is not centered in the plot, which is puzzling to me; it does not seem shifted enough to reflect a burial of Mrs. Black or another family member to the side. The concrete curbs around the plot, if original to the plot’s development (in 1883), would be a better guide to the plot’s arrangement than the monument which might have been moved.

The monument is a simple basic design made transcendently interesting by the inclusion of Black’s portrait in a niche on its front (figure 3).

Figure 3. Black monument. People’s Memorial Cemetery, Petersburg, VA. Photo: author.

The monument is a standard rectangular die surmounted by a cross-gabled cap with arcuated pediments. Above that is an urn draped with a cloth, a symbol of Black’s having crossed the veil into the beyond. Below is a base with Black’s name on it and a foundation under that.

The central part of the monument is made of marble and is quite worn except, thankfully, for where the niche has somewhat protected the portrait. There are nearly illegible inscriptions of the sides. The front gives anagraphic data below the portrait (figure 4).

Rev. L. A. BLACK
MARCH 1820
APRIL 28, 1883.

Figure 4. Black monument. Detail: anagraphic data. People’s Memorial Cemetery, Petersburg, VA. Photo: author.

The front also features an open book in a roundel tucked into the pediment above. On the recto of the page spread is clearly the word “Holy”, and I think an —IB— below indicates an original ‘Holy Bible.’ The book is ringed by a repeating floral pattern (figure 5).

Figure 5. Black monument Bible. People’s Memorial Cemetery, Petersburg, VA. Photo: author.

The face of the stone to the right as you look at the front has an anchor instead of a book and its inscription reads (figure 6):

Figure 6. Black monument, face 2. People’s Memorial Cemetery, Petersburg, VA. Photo: author.

Elder L. A. BLACK
took charge of the
First Baptist Church,
Harrison St. Petersburg Va.
Nov’r 15, 1873
& was installed as Pastor
Nov’r 19th 1873.
Erected by Elders:
Henry Williams Jr. Henry Dickerson
Jefferson Branch
During his ministry in this city
he baptized
more than 2000 persons.

The above is the text in the detailed description of the monument in Emily Williams’ book Stories in Stone (2020) 93-97; I see and confirm everything from line 1 to 7. Below that I can confirm bits and pieces and see one error, either in transcription or in the original cutting. For “Erected” in line 8 I read “Exercised”; the “Ex-” is quite clear.

The rear face (figure 7) bears a cross and crown motif above the following inscription:

Figure 7. Black monument, face 3. People’s Memorial Cemetery, Petersburg, VA. Photo: author.

Yes! Lay him down to rest; The man of God
whose feet so long earth’s pilgrimage have trod
Wearied at length, he sinks in
slumber blest,
Lay him, and leave him in his peaceful rest
Yes! Lay him down to rest
All that is dust
To the safe keeping of the grave entrust
He cannot die, his spirit soars above
His memory lingers here
Embalmed in love.

Here again I am indebted to Williams’ book, but also to a 1939 transcription published here and reflecting a time when the cemetery was still called Providence Cemetery:

Rev. L. A. Black
Born March 1820
Died April 28, 1883
(Masonic emblem)
Elder L. A. Black took charge of the First Baptist Church Harrison St., 
Petersburg, Va. Nov’r. 15, 1873
Exercised by Elders:
Henry Williams, Jr.
Henry Dickerson
Jefferson Branch
During his ministry in this city, he baptized more than 2200 persons.
Yes! Lay him down to rest; The Man of God whose feet so long earth’s pilgrimage 
have trod; Wearied at length, he sinks in slumber blest,
Lay him, and leave him in his peaceful rest,
Yes! Lay him down to rest
All that is dust
To the safe keeping of the grave entrust
He can not die his spirit scars above
His memory lingers here
Embalmed in Love.

The fourth face, to the left as one looks at the front, is blank, although it holds a masonic compass and square with the three link chain and G in the center (figure 8).

Figure 8. Black monument, face 4 masonic symbols. People’s Memorial Cemetery, Petersburg, VA. Photo: author.

The piece to resist is, of course, the splendid bas-relief portrait of Black in formal, costly nineteenth-century garb (figure 9).

Figure 9. Black monument, bas-relief portrait, optimal view. People’s Memorial Cemetery, Petersburg, VA. Photo: author.

The north-facing portrait has some moss (or lichen) growing on it, and shows signs of weathering in the general loss of sharpness in marble portraits that have been exposed to the elements for a century or more. Yet it is still legible enough to easily make out Black’s features and clothing.

The figure has an oval face accentuated by a receding hairline at the temples. The torso is oriented directly toward the viewer while the head is turned lightly to the right. The eyes are averted to the right further still and turned very slightly upward. The cutter has made an effort, aided now by the growth of moss on the stone, to give the impression of deep-set eyes. The modeling of the features aside from the cheek bones and around the orbits of the eyes is soft, with few signs of age that I can make out. There is a visible naso-labial fold, and the upper lip is expressed as thick, or rounded, in the area of the philtrum. Other markers of age are hidden by a full beard. The mouth is loosely closed, the lips parted by an undulating line. The nose has been damaged and is missing its tip. It is possible the damage is due to weathering of this pronounced feature.

Figure 10. Black monument, bas-relief portrait, frontal view. People’s Memorial Cemetery, Petersburg, VA. Photo: author.

The frontal view (figure 10), or rather a viewpoint raised a little so as to be looking directly into the upturned eyes, reveals the subtlety of the portrait and shows better than in figure 9 the cheek bones. Weathering gives the impression of a sardonic tilt of the left eyebrow which does not appear to have been intended by the artist.

The hair has been carved to try to model the curly nature of African-American hair. The hair is close to the scalp except for a tuft rising at mid forehead and falling to the right. The cutter used a drill to excavate rounded holes in the mass so as to imitate tight curls. The hairline is uneven. The beard drops from the lower jaw broadly in the form of an inverted cone. A series of vertical strokes by the lower lip articulate the roots of the beard, and further sets of vertical strokes articulate its falling in tufted masses.

Turning from a formal description, I would characterize the face as kindly and serious; the direct frontal view of the face (figure 9) is, in my opinion, much more successful than the optimal view when we look directly at the monument’s face. The earnest expression evokes a human presence better than the contemporary (1879) portrait of Charles Bass in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, in Washington, D.C. (figure 11).

Figure 11. Bass Monument (1879). Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Photo: author.

The overall feel and style are similar, as is the degree of weathering; Bass’s portrait suffers among other things from the fact that his eyes, in not being averted but merely turned up give the portrait an insipid air.

One supposes that the suggestion by Williams in her book that Black was carved from a photograph, as one supposes Bass was, is correct. The clothing is conventional in both portraits, though Black’s vest, pulled tight and buttoned only once, below the bow tie, gives some dynamism to the image (figure 12).

Figure 12. Black monument, bas-relief portrait: clothing. People’s Memorial Cemetery, Petersburg, VA. Photo: author.

The collar is loose around Black’s neck; the ribbon of the bow tie falls in graceful folds. The lapels of the jacket are interestingly convex, which allows the portrait to be articulated with shadows at the gorgets. And these indentations meet with a line that crosses at the bottom of the V of the top of Black’s vest. The cloth is not depicted as being particularly thick.

Williams got to this portrait before I did, so in fairness I will quote her description of it:

The tombstone features a three-quarter length bust carved in high relief (unusual for most nineteenth-century tombstones). Dressed in fashionable, well-maintained contemporary clothing, the portrait depicts a successful man. He emerges from an ovoid niche or roundel, which imparts a sense of gravitas and authority by creating a visual link with the portraiture of emperors and prophets. Black’s eyes do not meet the viewers but rather angle to the proper right and upward as if he were contemplating something that is unknown to the viewer, thus suggesting a power that the viewer may not share. Black’s figure fills and inhabits the roundel, his shoulders make contact with the edge of the space, giving him a sense of potency. The upper limits of the roundel are more deeply carved than the lower limit suggesting forward movement and energy as if the sitter is freeing himself form the stone and moving towards the viewer. Through these mechanisms, the portrait conveys a sense of charisma and intelligence. However, the fact that the image is carved in white marble, a material frequently reserved in the nineteenth century for depictions of whites, due to both its associations with classical antiquity and the color itself, is noteworthy and creates a visual play on both Black’s name and his race.

Williams, E. Stories in Stone: Memorialization, the Creation of History and the Role of Preservation (Vernon Press, Wilmington, DE: 2020), page 93.

There is much of value in Williams’ description even if I balk at the description of the carving as ‘high relief.’ I’m not sure I can follow Williams’ use of the word ‘reserved’ (even if the word is etiolated to almost nothing by ‘frequently’), as in “white marble, a material frequently reserved in the nineteenth century for depictions of whites,” either.

Marble was a material of choice throughout the nineteenth century between the final years of the slate epoch early in the century and the age of granite that took off in the last quarter of the century. I cannot think of another funerary portrait of a black American from the nineteenth century; I’ve certainly not seen one in a fairly systematic search for nineteenth-century funerary portraits in the great cemeteries from Richmond up to Boston. If there were thirty and all were in (for example) second-rate material whereas whites were using crisp white marble, then I’d say ‘reserved’ would be fair. But this portrait is, if not an unicum, extremely rare. As with the clothes he is portrayed wearing, Black’s monument, too, is merely following the commonest fashion of his day. The use of marble is adequately explained by broader tastes and economies of scale (lots of marble quarried = cheaper stone) without recourse to a racially-motivated ‘reservation’ of marble. It’s also worth noting that the marble actually has pronounced grey streaks in it which are attractive and give it character.

Black is the subject of a good biography by John T. Kneebone in the Encyclopedia Virginia. I summarize:

Black was not from Virginia. He was born enslaved in Ann Arundel County, Maryland and either escaped, or perhaps more likely, was taken by a family member to Portland, Maine in 1827. He fell under the influence of George Black (no relation) who moved to Boston to become pastor of the Independent Baptist church there in 1837. Leonard followed, marrying the pastor’s daughter, Maya. When George Black died (1843), Leonard moved to Providence, Rhode Island, receiving tutelage in theology reportedly with the assistance of Francis Wayland, president of Brown University. He also published an autiobiographical slave narrative, The Life and Suffering of Leonard Black, a Fugitive from Slavery, in 1847.

Pastorships in Stonington, Connecticut and Brooklyn, New York followed; he said he ministered to troops during the Civil War. In 1867 he traveled to Europe, and upon his return he took up a position as pastor in New Haven, Connecticut. In 1871 he moved to Virginia, serving as second pastor in a church in Norfolk; and after two years he was installed, as his monument recalls, as pastor of the First Baptist church in Petersburg.

This was an immensely important church, one of the largest and oldest in the state. He is said to have doubled the congregation’s size in his ten years as pastor, and at his death (as we have seen) he is said to have baptised some 2,200 persons. He died of Bright’s Disease on April 28, 1883 and his funeral was attended by an S.R.O. crowd of 5,000. People reportedly lined the streets in a sort of public holiday to see him to his final resting place in People’s Memorial Cemetery (then Providence Cemetery); his hearse was accompanied by 42 carriages. Friends in the congregation set up the monument as we have it today on 1 October 1883.

Black’s life represents an astonishing change of fortune from enslaved person to popular minister (and freemason) accompanied to his final rest by throngs of well wishers and admirers. His story seems to me remarkable and fascinating, all the more so when read against the first several essays in W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk. I would like to know why he chose to go to Virginia rather than stay in New England and New York where he spent the largest portion of his life. I’d also like to know more about his trip to Europe.

The Pedia of Wiki article on Black uncritically reproduces his slave narrative at the expense of later sources including contrary information from Black himself.

If you’re ever in Petersburg, or going through on I 95, I recommend getting off and having a look at Black’s monument. Maps will show you the site of the Battle of the Crater, which is adjacent to the cemetery, even if it does not show the cemetery itself.

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Scranton, PA

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