My Family’s Bones

Marcella Dunn's gravestone (photo: Kimberly Borchard)


Here’s a new post on a non-musical subject, this time the story of an uncle and a slave. This is the original version of a piece just published in The Wall Street Journal. It was a last-minute assignment which took me away from plans to write a profile of clawhammer legend Mark Olitsky, which will be coming along shortly, if life goes as planned.

Hope all is well with everyone. It’s like spring here in Virginia, perfect for playing guitar outside, and very few insects. They’ll be along soon, but maybe not before Olitsky.  


The recent filming of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” in Richmond and Petersburg,Va. was a reminder that, despite a few holdouts, local residents have made peace with the Civil War’s outcome. Most greeted the second coming of Lincoln (the film focuses on the late president’s visit to the fallen confederate capital less than two weeks before his assassination) as cause for artistic celebration — and economic gain. It was also a splashy ending to the often somber Civil War sesquicentennial season.   

But there was more involved than Hollywood glitz and greenbacks. These history-minded events also stirred memories of an era that recedes ever further into the past, a time not only of  Lincoln, Grant, Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, but of people little noted, if not anonymous, yet who  are in their own way still influential.

I have been thinking lately about one such person. Her name was Marcella Dunn. Her lifetime achievements were, at best, humble. They are certainly little known. So far as I know, this story is the only published record of her existence, though at one time she was listed in various documents – not as a person, but as property.

My family owned Marcella Dunn.

She was alive the day Lincoln came to Richmond – living on the plantation in Buckingham County, Virginia that had passed down through my mother’s side since the 1700s. A slave celebrity of sorts had also lived in the county — Betsy Hemmings, niece of Sally Hemmings (and by some accounts one of Thomas Jefferson’s children) – who is buried in an attractive  grave beside her master, John Wayles Eppes (Jefferson’s son-in-law) at the Millbrook Plantation.

Marcella’s grave, like her life, is all but invisible. It is located on a lightly sloping hillside alongside several dozen slave graves in a segregated section of the family cemetery. Hers is one of  two slave gravestones that include the deceased’s name. The others are marked by bare fieldstones; those resting below are as anonymous in death as they were in life. Marcella’s daughter, Ella, lies among them.     

I had seen Marcella’s gravestone during family funerals when I was growing up – you passed the slave graves on the way to the white section of the cemetery, some of which was surrounded by a stone fence.  There are three confederate soldiers buried there, including one who fought at Gettysburg. The slave graves are in open land where the cattle graze; I remember seeing a  cowpie on Marcella’s grave during one visit.

But I knew little about her. Relatives would sometimes tell stories about how Marcella helped raise my great-grandmother and grandmother – and my great uncle, Malcolm, a larger than life man whose temperament sometimes seemed straight out of the antebellum era. Then again, to him those days and ways were hardly distant. He had the sword of our relative who fought at Gettysburg, and in his early youth was cared for by an ancient woman — Marcella — who had been a slave.         

In 2000  I took my youngest son to Buckingham to talk with Malcolm, then 85. I wanted to record his memories of Marcella and other stories from his life, if not for a future book (fictionalized versions of Malcolm and Marcella appear in my recently published novel “In The Matter of J. Van Pelt”)  then at least to make sure they did not disappear with him into his grave. He was the last source of information about Marcella: family records had been destroyed in a fire, as had official records when the county courthouse burned in 1869. Malcolm died two years after our visit, in a world far different than the one he was born into — a world changed, to some degree I believe, by Marcella. 

He called her “A Marcella” – the A standing for Aunt. “I can still see A Marcella walking across the creek land,” Malcolm said, staring off a bit as we sat around the kitchen table. He described her as “tall and skinny” with a light complexion and a deep voice. “A Marcella had a lot to do with raising my mother,” he said, and she also guided him and his siblings in the paths of righteousness. He recalled her taking a stick to a brother, and she gave Malcolm some tongue lashings “like she was my own mother.”

She was born on the plantation in 1818 and in slave times would have been known as an “indoor slave” – someone who worked in the kitchen and tended to the family. “She was part social worker, part domestic help. If somebody got sick they’d send for Marcella.”

She was “loved by everybody. She smiled all the time.”

I asked if she ever talked about slavery. “She used to tell old stories she’d heard by word of mouth that her ancestors were on the first shipload of slaves to Virginia,” Malcolm said. Then he said something jarring:  “A Marcella said slavery did black people more good than anything else.”  

It was not surprising Malcolm might hold such a view. But could Marcella have really believed such a thing, or was she simply saying what she thought the white folk wanted to hear? There’s no way of knowing, of course,  though the possibility she might have is a grim reminder she was born into a world whose best and brightest proclaimed black inferiority as universal objective truth. Lest we forget, a few examples:

“Vices the most notorious seem to be the portion of this unhappy race,” said one widely published description of blacks; “idleness, treachery, revenge, cruelty, impudence, stealing, lying, profanity, debauchery, nastiness and intemperance, are said to have extinguished the principles of natural law, and to have silenced the reproofs of conscience. They are strangers to every sentiment of compassion, and are an awful example of the corruption of man when left to himself.”  So stated the 1797 Encyclopedia Britannica

In the same spirit philosopher David Hume sneered that a Jamaican black who had gained a reputation for intelligence was “admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.” Even John Locke, champion of the “inalienable rights of man,”  wrote a provision for slavery in his draft of  the Fundamental Constitution of Carolina — and invested in the Royal Africa Company, which held the British monopoly of the African slave trade.

Transcending such pervasive and grinding bias would require nearly superhuman strength, and there were other, more brutal, reminders of subservient status. While Malcolm insisted whites treated their slaves well, history tells another story, one that also strikes close to home. My family tree includes the names Stevens, Alvis, Coleman, and Cabell  — surnames found in advertisements for runaway slaves from Buckingham and nearby areas.  

John Stevens, advertising in the Virginia Argus (Jan. 5, 1803), offered $20 for a slave named Toney, who is described as “about thirty years of age, has scars on his back [not for his good behavior] and one very noted scar on his breast as large as a man’s finger.” He had also “been branded on both jaws.”  Joseph Cabell, in the Virginia Gazette (Sept. 6, 1799) offered $40 for two slaves named Billy and Judy, a husband and wife who had fled together.  In November 1795, John Alloway Strange offered ten pounds for Tom, “about 25 or 26 years old, 5 feet 4 or 5 inches high, has a scar on his head, and a large one on one of his legs, and one on each wrist, occasioned by handcuffs: his back much scarred by whipping.”  

I did not ask, though wish I had, if Marcella ever spoke about being beaten, or being intimidated by the Klan, whose local branch included two relatives. Malcolm said he had never seen a lynching but added there was a local “lynching tree” that a “wood company” had cut down a few years prior to our interview. Strange to think, but somewhere that tree may exist in reinvented status as a bed or kitchen table.  

Malcolm filled in a few other details of Marcella’s life. She had one child he knew of and likely several grandchildren, though he didn’t know the names of any descendants. The fact that she was light-skinned suggested mixed ancestry. I asked if family slaves had borne children by their masters. “I guess they did,” he said, estimating I  had “probably plenty“ of unknown kin, some of whom might be buried near Marcella.    

 Marcella died  a very old woman — 109 years —  in 1927. Her funeral was attended by about 100 people —  “more blacks than whites” with a black and white preacher. “There were buggies and horses under the trees,” Malcolm recalled. “It was a pretty day.” Her gravestone includes her name and dates on one side and on the back an inscription stating she had been willed with 20 other slaves to her final master. Near her grave is the only other slave marker I found with an inscription: “Betty Stevens could only read the Bible.”

While you can’t know much about a person from this distance, when I think of Marcella I think of a dignified woman forced to play a difficult hand. She came to know freedom, of sorts at least, and clearly knew love. She was admired and valued in her community and made her part of the world a better place. Those are worthy accomplishments for anyone, and considering her situation, perhaps great ones.

Yet it is hard not to wonder if her omnipresent smile was a sign of true happiness, a survival technique, or a combination of those and other factors. She was a firm Baptist, Malcolm said, so perhaps her smile also represented a triumph of forgiveness. I like to think Marcella’s smile was the reflection of a nature more powerful than the forces arrayed against her. That would, in my mind, make her a superior person. One also wonders how many Marcellas there were among the 12 generations of American slaves, their contributions unsung but incalculable.   

It’s also hard not to also think about the anonymous souls buried alongside her. Who were they? Were they all born on this land? Did some escape the plantation, only to be dragged back? What were their dreams? Did they go through life believing they were inferior, if not sub-human? While Marcella and daughter Ella are said to lie side-by-side, the heart-rending words of Sojourner Truth can haunt as you walk among the fieldstones:  “Look at me! Look at my arm! I have plowed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me — and aren’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man (when I could get it), and bear de lash as well — and ar’n’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children and seen ‘em mos’ all sold off into slavery, and when I cried out with a mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard — and ar’n’t I a woman?”

If David Hume ever spoke words that powerful and eloquent, they slipped my attention.

None are responsible for the sins of their fathers, but there is a connection between generations, for good and bad, sometimes bestowing wealth and privilege, sometimes hardship and sorrow, and many things in between. Time definitely has a way of shuffling the deck. Just as those anonymous bones belonged to people once owned by my family, they now own part of me.     

Malcolm’s world was shuffled too, and he seemed to have changed as well, if only a little, perhaps due to Marcella’s influence.  

A devout Dixiecrat, Malcolm for many years hosted an annual picnic – featuring fried chitterlings – that attracted upwards of 400 people, including many state politicians. This started out as an all-white event but eventually there were new faces at the table.

“When Doug Wilder was elected they all said I had to have him,”  Malcolm recalled near interview’s end, adding that he invited Wilder but wouldn’t allow Virginia’s first African-American governor to sit at his hallowed dining room table. Wilder seems not to held this against him.  One day, after he had left office “he stopped in,” Malcolm recalled.   “Just came by to say hello.”

I asked what he thought of Wilder.

“He was alright.”

Betty Stevens's grave marker (photo: Kimberly Borchard)

About Dave Shiflett

Dave Shiflett is a writer -- former critic for Bloomberg News and a contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and other publications -- and author of several books, including one with Donald Trump ("The America We Deserve"). He also writes and performs music and has released four CDs -- "Time Goes Rushing By" (Floor Creak); "Songs for Aging Cynics" (The Karma Farmers); "Afternoon Lamentations" (Dave Shiflett and Friends) and "From the First Time" (Dave Shiflett and Friends).
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5 Responses to My Family’s Bones

  1. Viper says:

    Great story. Thanks for sharing. Looking forward to the Mark Olitsky piece. He’s my favorite, and thankfully local. I wrote a piece on him last year:

  2. Rebecca Angus says:

    Thank you for sharing, Dave. It’s powerful, and I always enjoy your voice.–Rebecca

  3. Janet says:

    David, we share the same bloodline. Your mom is my 1st cousin. Loved your grandmother. Very interest article regarding Marcella Dunn. To me, the family cemetery had a inexplainable ambiance that I have felt since a child. Your research filled in a few blanks. Thanks.
    Read J. Van Pelt. Made me laugh. Our uncle was surely a capitivating character. Our uncle’s priority was first and foremost family. A good thing since he raised my brother after the deaths of our parents. Good work….Cousin, Janet

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