Photo of unmarked graves in Left Hand, West Virginia. Photo provided by Sundae Knight. Dropped pin https://maps.app.goo.gl/TifnV622MJwcKTmq9
West Virginia’s history with slavery is often obscured by the false narrative that portrays the state as an “archetypically white” place. In reality, slavery was prevalent throughout West Virginia, with slaveholders owning between 33-40% of the land in the state and using their wealth to gain disproportionate political and social power. Most notably, the salt industry in Charleston, the state’s capital, relied heavily on enslaved labor.
Despite what is or is not being taught in West Virginia classrooms, slavery’s presence in the state was pervasive, with enslaved people in all but one county in 1860. Acknowledging this history and enslaved African Americans’ role in the history of West Virginia is important.
One descendant of a West Virginia slaveholding family, Sundae Knight, currently living in Florida, is working to find the stories and descendants behind unmarked enslaved graves that rest on her family’s former plantation in Left Hand, Roane County, West Virginia.
“The family cemetery on the old Knight plantation holds the remains of 5-8 unnamed enslaved graves with only stone markers,” according to Knight, who is ambitious to identify the graves and give proper respect to those buried there. “I’ll tell you, I’m not popular in my family for caring about this,” Knight said.
Knight recalls that her great uncle Robey Knight marked the 5-8 graves with whitewashed fieldstone some time ago. Knight and her mother recently repainted and marked the stones with white painted crosses.
All that seems to exist is a tragic oral history passed down through the Knight family.
Knight remembers one story passed down about “Negro” Joe, who was born into slavery and enslaved by the Knight family but later freed and lived in Charleston, West Virginia. Knight recalls that Joe was visited by her great-grandfather Aaron Knight, born in 1872, for the duration of his life.
Knight also told BBG further stories recounted by her great-grandfather about several killings and lynchings of enslaved and freed Black people in Roane County, including his story of helping to cut down a lynched Black man from a large poplar tree on Amma Rd, not far from the Knight store.
Another tragic story passed down was about a formerly enslaved man who, once legally freed, was employed by the Knight family in their store. The man could read and do basic math, but white customers would question his tallies and ask Robey or Lillian Knight to check his figures.
One day, while reading a newspaper at the Knight family residence, the formerly enslaved Knight store “employee” was shot through the window. The community covered for the murderer, and it took the Knight family several months to track down who did it. Knowing that a trial would never bring justice for a Black person, he simply lay in wait and shot the murderer at a quiet opportunity.
This begs the question: could this man also be one of the formerly enslaved graves?
Identifying the unnamed graves and giving proper respect to those who are buried there seems impossible.
Knight hopes that painting the gravestones white and putting small crosses on the grave sites will prevent the rocks from being thrown over the hill. But Knight believes these people deserve real grave markers, complete with appropriate details, to give honor and dignity to their lives.
The Knight cemetery’s unmarked graves are just one identified site in West Virginia, with many more to be discovered.
In September 2017, a group of Martinsburg, West Virginia residents formed a committee to look into restoring the long-abandoned Green Hill African American Cemetery, where the enslaved were buried in mostly unmarked graves. The cemetery had become overgrown with trees and littered with trash until the community took action to restore it.
Sundae Knight’s effort to uncover the stories and descendants of unmarked enslaved graves in West Virginia sheds necessary light on the state’s dark past. Today, there is little acknowledgment of so many who were stripped of their dignity, even in memory. West Virginia needs a memorial to honor the lives of the enslaved.
If you have any information regarding the stories or descendants of the enslaved grave sites on the Knight family property in Roane County, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.