In 1854, the Green Hill Cemetery was established in Martinsburg, but enslaved individuals, and free Black and African Americans were not allowed to be buried in the cemetery. A short and somewhat ridiculous concrete wall separates the two burial sites, adjacent to each other. As odd as it may seem to us today, segregation in cemeteries was common throughout the Southern states.
Originally many of the men, women and children buried in the small burial ground — likely enslaved individuals who toiled for Martinsburg white families — were interred in a burial ground on Water Street, but when the city wanted that space, it deeded an acre and a half of steeply sloped land adjacent to the cemetery for “the colored people of Martinsburg” to place their dead. It is likely that burials continued here after the Civil War.
But over the years, the town apparently forgot that the plot of land adjacent to the Green Hill Cemetery held the remains of enslaved individuals. White folks treated the plot of land as a dump. I can’t help but think this disrespect was deliberate — in other cities and towns in the south, Black and African American burial grounds were plowed over, built on, deliberately obliterated and desecrated .
The slave cemetery was rediscovered in the 1970s, although the community continued to dump tires, old appliances, and household garbage and detrius in the area. It was common practice to toss road kill over the edge of the slope.
Several individuals took it upon themselves to clean up as much as they could. And in 2017, an organization was created — the Green Hill Historic African American Cemetery — to clean the garbage from this sacred site, find as many of the forgotten graves as they could, and care for the burial ground.
Those interred here were usually placed in shallow, mostly unmarked graves. Coffins were a rarity — most were buried in just blankets. Even today, after a storm, you’re likely to find bones uncovered by the rain.
At least now, the community, led by the Green Hill Historic African American Cemetery organization, has recognized that this site is a sacred one and is attempting to identify and honor those interred there. And for those of us who aren’t familiar with this aspect of American history, this tiny cemetery is an important destination to help us to start understanding the African American history and experience.
Getting there: 486 East Burke Street, Martinsburg WV