Tombstone Tales

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A “Who’s Who” of Local Cemeteries

There are lots of famous folks buried in Lynchburg’s cemeteries, some of whom are outright famous and others who probably should be.

Maria Wilson (1861-1878), buried at Old City Cemetery, made newspapers all over the country when she leapt to her death from a window at Court Street Baptist Church.

On Oct. 16, 1878, the church was packed with more than 2,000 people for a wedding, an “immense throng,” a Kansas newspaper reported. When someone heard plaster falling or glass breaking—reports varied—people started running and at least 14 people were killed.

A Michigan newspaper said, “Many leaped from windows, and a few who were in the gallery jumped from the third-story windows. Three women who made that venture were killed outright.”

The Lynchburg News pondered Wilson’s final moments: “The view from the window through which Maria Wilson jumped to an instant death is simply fearful. Whether her neck was broken by concussion against the fence or pavement is not known, but certainly ninety-nine in a hundred would never know afterwards that they had attempted the leap.”

It’s been said that Ota Benga (1883-1916), a Congolese Pygmy once exhibited with primates at the Bronx Zoo, was buried at Old City Cemetery. Benga lived in Lynchburg for several years, but homesick for Africa, he committed suicide.

White Rock Cemetery also claims Benga. According to FindAGrave.com, he “was reportedly buried in an unmarked grave in Lynchburg’s Old City Cemetery before being moved to the city’s White Rock Cemetery.”

The entry goes on to say that “his actual burial site (White Rock Cemetery) was deliberately kept secret for many years as it was feared that officials from his homeland … would attempt to retrieve his body and ship it back to Africa.”

A plaque memorializing Benga at White Rock, perhaps in response to his time at the zoo, states, “I am a man. I am a man.”

Poet and activist Anne Bethel Spencer (1882-1975) and husband Edward (1876-1964) are buried at Forest Hill Burial Park, located on Lakeside Drive across from the Moose Lodge. The Spencer plot is about 100 yards from the entrance, on the left side of a traffic circle. Sharing the plot are the Spencer’s daughters, Bethel and Alroy, and son Chauncey.

Spencer, longtime librarian at Dunbar High School, co-founded Lynchburg’s chapter of the NAACP. She also was the second African-American poet to be included in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry.

She and Edward hosted many notable African-American intellectuals in their Pierce Street home, among them W.E.B. DuBois.

Chauncey Spencer (1906-2002) was a pioneering aviator and educator who pushed for racial integration of the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. At the time, Air Corps leaders believed African Americans were not suited to be pilots.

Spencer and another pilot set out to prove them wrong, renting a small plane, embarking on a multi-city tour and taking their cause to Missouri Sen. Harry Truman. After World War II, President Truman desegregated the military.

As stated in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2004, “without Spencer … the Tuskegee Airmen might never have existed to help pave the way for integration of the nation’s armed forces.”

Also at Forest Hill is blues pioneer Luke Jordan (1892-1952). According to a historic marker, Jordan was one of the black musicians credited with “creating a syncopated and upbeat style” of blues “called Piedmont or East Coast Blues.”

Sgt. Charles L. Scott (1930-1950) died during the Korean Conflict but wasn’t buried in Fort Hill Memorial Park until 2013. Scott graduated from Boonsboro High School in 1948, joined the Army and was sent to Korea. He was reported missing in action in 1950.

For decades, Scott’s unidentified remains were buried in Hawaii at the National Cemetery of the Pacific. Thanks to DNA testing, his remains were identified and moved to Lynchburg in 2013. He was buried with full military honors.

Fort Hill Memorial Park manager Kevin Schley said that on the day of the funeral the road into the cemetery was lined with people who had come to pay their respects.

City founder John Lynch (1740-1820) is buried at the South River Meeting House Graveyard. In the late 1700s, Lynch operated a ferry service across the James River. In 1786, he founded Lynchburg.

The church, known today as Quaker Memorial Presbyterian, served area Quakers until 1839. By then, most had moved away because they opposed slavery. Resting not too far from Lynch is Revolutionary War soldier John Preston (1750-1820).

Local businessman and philanthropist Samuel Miller (1792-1869) is buried at Spring Hill Cemetery. In “Campbell Chronicles and Family Sketches,” R.H. Early writes that Miller was the “son of a poor widow and had few advantages.”

After moving to Lynchburg at 18, he prospered in business, becoming a multi-millionaire. Among other things, he donated land for Miller Park and the Lynchburg Female Orphan Asylum, also known as Miller Home.

Lt. Gen. Jubal Anderson Early (1816-1894), Gen. Robert E. Lee’s “Bad Old Man,” is buried at Spring Hill.

Early reportedly had a nasty temper but was brilliant on the battlefield. When the Civil War ended, he refused to swear allegiance to the Union. Instead, he fled to Mexico and later Canada. Eventually, he settled in Lynchburg.

Early’s death, reported in newspapers all over the country, was preceded by a fall. A California newspaper reported he was “ascending the stairs at the post-office when he fell heavily, the ice on the steps rendering them slippery. He struck on his head and the concussion was so severe as to render him unconscious.”

Artist Georgia Morgan (1869-1951) is buried at Spring Hill, her tombstone decorated with a painter’s pallet and brushes. Morgan, known for her still life and landscape paintings, was chair of Lynchburg College’s art department for 30 years.

According to a historic marker, Morgan’s work was “exhibited at the Paris Salon and in galleries from Maine to Florida.”
Locally, original examples of Morgan’s work can be found at Jones Memorial Library, the Lynchburg Museum and other places. The Georgia Morgan Civic Art Show is held each February.

Don Reno (1927-1984), “King of the Flat Picking Guitarists,” is buried at Spring Hill. Reno is credited with co-writing “Dueling Banjos,” the song made famous by the 1972 thriller, Deliverance. Reno was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame.

Edwin “Ned” Emerson (1839-1922) is buried at Presbyterian Cemetery. He was an actor, performing at Ford’s Theatre when President Abraham Lincoln was shot on April 14, 1865.

Some reports say Emerson was delivering a line from “Our American Cousin” when John Wilkes Booth, a friend of Emerson’s, killed Lincoln. After Lincoln’s assassination, Emerson quit acting and moved to Lynchburg. According to census records, he married, had children and worked in the stationery and book business.

Folk artist Emma Serena “Queena” Dillard Stovall (1887-1980) is buried at Presbyterian. A self-taught artist, she is sometimes called the “Grandma Moses of Virginia.” Her scenes of country life—farm auctions, funerals, hog killings, etc.—are in museums as well as private collections.

If you want to visit these and other famous folks from Lynchburg’s past, Old City Cemetery and Presbyterian Cemetery sometimes host tours, and all of the cemeteries mentioned are open to visitors from dawn until dusk.

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