In 1873 the Daughters of Zion, an all female African-American society, created a two-acre independent plot across from the Oakwood Cemetery (the second oldest public cemetery in Charlottesville). The Daughters of Zion Cemetery provided a dignified resting place for African Americans who did not wish to be buried in Oakwood’s segregated section. The Daughters of Zion continued to own and manage this cemetery from 1873 until sometime in the 1920s or early 1930s. Most of the burials took place during this time. Sometime during the late 1920s or 1930s the Daughters of Zion disbanded, and their cemetery had no official ownership until the city assumed title to the property in the 1970s.
The Daughters of Zion Cemetery served as the burial place for many prominent African-American residents of Charlottesville in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One such figure was Benjamin Tonsler (1854-1917), a pioneer African-American educator for whom Tonsler Park in Charlottesville is named. Tonsler was a former slave who attended the Hampton Institute and returned to Charlottesville to become a teacher and then principal for almost thirty years at Jefferson Graded School. He took personal risks in order to help many African-American students gain an education beyond the eighth grade during segregation, teaching advanced texts after school. Tonsler was also a friend of Booker T. Washington and played an important role in Charlottesville’s civil rights movement. He is buried in the Daughters of Zion Cemetery next to his wife, Fannie Gildersleeve Tonsler (1859-1937).
Other prominent African Americans buried in the Daughters of Zion Cemetery include Kenneth Walker and Dorothy Murray Allen, former owners of the Rose Hill Market on Rose Hill Drive, Rev. M. T. Lewis and Rev. Jesse Herndon, former local ministers at First Baptist Church and Mt. Zion Baptist Church, respectively, and Bernard A. Coles, a local dentist and the first president of the Charlottesville chapter of the NAACP.
While there are around 140 surviving gravestones in the Daughters of Zion Cemetery, many more markers have succumbed to natural decay, neglect, and destruction. The actual number of burials in the cemetery could be as high as 300.
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Corner of First Street and Oak Street