By FELECIA SHELOR
A grave marker set in place Wednesday is intended to honor the dead in the Slave Meadow Cemetery, located in Meadows of Dan.
When the Blue Ridge Parkway was built in the late 1930s, rough stones marked the graves in the old slave cemetery. During construction of the parkway, the simple stone grave markers were cast aside; carried away and tossed in the woods by construction workers employed by the National Park Service.
The rest of the cemetery is owned by Meadows of Dan Baptist Church, but the portion of the property where the slaves were buried was taken by the government when the parkway was built.
The Langhorne slaves are buried in the Meadows of Dan Baptist Church Cemetery.
In the mid-nineteenth century, they came with Steptoe Langhorne to his plantation called “Langdale,” and were founding members of the Meadows of Dan Baptist Church. Langhorne also donated the land for the church and the cemetery.
A few years ago, the National Park Service surveyed the cemetery with ground penetrating radar and discovered nine unmarked graves. It is not known for certain who is buried in those graves, but the locals know it was the location of the old slave cemetery.
It is said in oral history that Langhorne treated his slaves like family. He specified that he wanted them to be buried in the Meadows of Dan Baptist Church Cemetery in his family plot, along with himself and his family.
The effort to honor the slaves with the replacement of the grave markers was the passion of one man: Bob Heafner. He moved to Meadows of Dan in the 1970s and, along with Charlotte Heafner and Susan Thigpen, founded a journal called “The Mountain Laurel” in 1983.
“The Mountain Laurel” is an archive of the mountain people, our history and our way of life. It is an expansive, important, and irreplaceable historic documentation of our region of the Blue Ridge. The issues have been archived and can be found online at www.mtnlaurel.com.
It was during his interviews with the old- timers that Heafner learned the truth about the graves of the slaves and the grave stones that had been removed during the construction of the parkway.
A legendary figure in Meadows of Dan, Matt Burnette, , who died in 1986, also asked Heafner to promise to get those grave markers replaced.
For 33 years, Heafner tried to convince the National Park Service to replace the grave stones, or to allow the community to do so. Heafner wanted to honor the request of Burnette — his old friend. He also wanted to honor the memory of the slaves and the free African Americans buried in the cemetery.
Heafner’s time and ability to continue work on the project was greatly diminished when he assumed the full time care giving of his wife, Charlotte Heafner.
In 2012, the management of the Blue Ridge Parkway erected a fence along the border of the old slave cemetery, which was shown on the acquisition maps of 1938. But there still was no marker indicating why the fence was there or what was inside it.
In 2016, Libby Wilcox became interested in the project and took over corresponding with the park service, urging them to allow a grave marker to be placed in the Slave Meadow Cemetery. She also asked the granite quarry in Mount Airy, N.C. to donate a grave marker.
William Swift, owner of the North Carolina Granite Corporation, generously complied with her request. Due to the persistence, endurance, sacrifice of time and energy, and hard work of Wilcox and Heafner the grave marker was set at the cemetery on Wednesday, Nov. 29.
Heafner named the cemetery ‘The Slave Meadow Cemetery.’ He wanted the name to portray the idea that there also are other unmarked graves of slaves and free African Americans in that meadow.
It also was Heafner who wrote the epitaph that is etched on the stone: “Slave Meadow Cemetery. In memory and honor of the known and unknown African-Americans buried in this Meadow. May they rest in peace; forever free.”
A public dedication of the Slave Meadows Cemetery will be held this spring.
(Felecia Shelor is a business owner and community activist.)