In 2019 we began a project investigating the unmarked graves in Section 1 of the Florence Cemetery. Section 1 is located at the southwestern end of the cemetery; the majority of this area became the final resting place for many African Americans who once were part of the Florence community. With few exceptions, African American graves were limited to this section, segregating them from the rest of the cemetery.
Preservation and maintenance of historic cemeteries can be problematic, and headstones often break or are impacted by nature, making it difficult to identify those who are interred in affected graves. In the case of early African American burial sites in particular, graves often went unmarked or marked in a simpler manner, with field stone or wooden marker that didn’t identify the person or hold up to time. As African American families began to move out of the area, information on the locations of their loved ones’ graves left with them. At first glance, this area of Florence Cemetery looks sparsely populated.
Identifying these burials was a long, arduous process, involving the use of historical newspapers, genealogy strategies and scattered cemetery records. This research was combined with data obtained using ground penetrating radar and cemetery plot maps, which helped locate individual graves and identify who was buried within. We now know the names and locations of over 120 African American people buried in this section, less than ten of whom still have visible markers standing.
More than half of this area includes graves of once-enslaved people, some of whom may have died before obtaining freedom. Among them, Fisher Aylor and Edmond Bell, who served in the 117th Infantry, United States Colored Troops, are buried here, along with their family members.
Another burial is that of Tom Thomas, born in Maryland around 1795 and brought to Boone County by his enslaver, Nathan Thomas, a Revolutionary War veteran. Once free, Tom Thomas purchased land and helped to establish the First Baptist Church in Florence. He also claimed the back pay of his son, Peter Carpenter, 117th Infantry, USCT, who died in service and was buried in Virginia.
Rachel Neal was born in Virginia in 1798 and brought to Boone County by her enslavers, Charles and Rebecca McNeal. After the deaths of Charles and Rebecca, Rachel and her son, Thomas, were enslaved by the McNeal daughters, Polly and Mariah, both of whom were deaf. Rachel inherited the sisters’ Florence home after their deaths. Rachel, her son and two granddaughters are buried in Section 1.
The African American burials at Florence Cemetery will be memorialized later this year with the placing of a monument honoring those interred there.
Written by Hillary Delaney