Working carefully, and using only tools and products that don’t damage aging stone, Rob Langdon has cleaned and restored nearly 90% of the markers at the Piedmont Baptist Church cemetery. Langdon is no amateur at this kind of work. One of the ways he’s made his living is as a restoration contractor, and he appreciates the fragility of the ancient monuments, some centuries old.
The work is far more complicated than simply cleaning the accumulated grime from the marble, slate and granite, he said. “Some of the stones have shattered, and fitting them together is like working with puzzle pieces.” In other cases, it’s not clear where a marker, long since separated from its original mooring, actually belongs. Using church records, talking to families, and observing family groupings (he calls it “graveyard forensics”) has helped Langdon reunite the memorial markers with the right gravesites. If he’s lucky, he’s able to match the scattered stone with the physical footprint it left at the original site.
Langdon’s interest in the cemetery began years ago when he got to know members of the Mills family, a family that came from Crozet’s Freetown neighborhood. As he talked with them, he wanted to know more about the hidden, rustic neighborhood, originally established for freed slaves, that’s constantly under threat by development along Rt. 250 just east of Yancey Mills. “I learned a lot about the basic history of Freetown, and I was hooked,” Langdon said. He bought the George Mills home place when it came up for sale.
The home had a great many structural as well as cosmetic problems, and was advertised as a possible tear-down, but Langdon had the historical appreciation as well as the specialized skills to restore it. During his hours working in the neighborhood, he met Richard Brown, the last person who’d been born in Freetown to remain there. With Brown’s help, he learned more about the settlement, including the ties that united the original families, how they lived and where they worked. When the Brown family’s old home place came up for sale, Langdon bought and restored it as well. With Brown’s help, Langdon published a book about the neighborhood’s history. There were three printings of Historic Freetown in Western Albemarle County Virginia: A Pictorial History, all sold out, and Langdon donated a copy to the Crozet Library to serve as a reference for those interested in the lives of Black Crozet citizens over the last couple of centuries.
Many of them worked as cooks, maids, butlers and gardeners for the large estates that surrounded Freetown. Langdon learned that these employers and other businesses sent cars to Freetown in the morning and evening to pick up and drop off their workforce. Others not so lucky walked or rode bicycles to their work. On days off, they caught up on the chores of their small homesteads. On Sundays, Langdon learned, many of them were at Piedmont Church. To him, it seemed a natural extension of his interest in Freetown to take an interest in restoring the old cemetery beside the church in Yancey Mills.
The stones tell stories that, many years later, can only be partially understood. In Freetown and surrounding neighborhoods, families honored their dead with stones made mostly of marble and granite, perhaps inscribed by a stone cutter Langdon knew about who lived in the community of Mechums River. He guessed that some of the simpler ones may have been chiseled out by the families themselves, while the newer stones were probably from commercial sources, with a number of military markers furnished by the Veterans Administration. Langdon found children’s graves, clusters of family markers for children, an ancient tombstone honoring Nancy Dickinson, who died in 1878, and some that had crumbled into fragments. In the oldest section, he found 13 or 14 stones that had endured a couple of centuries.
Langdon repairs the broken stones with knife-grade epoxy. After the pieces are reassembled, he fills the cracks and voids with a mixture of epoxy and fine marble sand, tinting some to match the color of the stone.
Some of the most challenging work is still ahead of him, as he seeks to document the remaining section. In the 60s, a man with a bulldozer was hired to do some work at the cemetery. For reasons no has ever been able to explain, he arrived before dawn and, with no one yet there to direct him, pushed a pile of dirt mixed with stones into the woods. Langdon intends to tackle the arduous task of looking through the rubble for stones and other clues to who was buried where, perhaps with the help of specialized radar. He knows he won’t be completely successful, but hopes to be as accurate as he can in making a reliable inventory, including the unmarked graves, as a way to assist future research by historians as well as families. “Telling their stories through preserving their last resting places is vital to providing an authentic narrative of Black American history,” he said.
In this mission his motives are not just a matter of historical accuracy, but also because of his growing understanding of the lives of the people buried there who should be honored, he said, “with the dignity, care and respect in death that had often been denied them in life.”
Those wanting to make donations to the Piedmont Baptist Church, earmarked for the cemetery restoration project and upkeep, can address them to 596 Half Mile Branch Rd., Crozet 22932.