She's spending her golden years bringing new life to cemetery for the enslaved in Hanover

“The people that are buried here don’t have the opportunities I have. They weren’t allowed to have the freedom that I have. To do things that I do."
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Posted at 11:53 AM, Jul 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-09 23:37:56-04

HANOVER COUNTY, Va. -- Jean Folly is spending her retirement digging for her roots.

“When I’m out here I am totally at ease,” said Jean.

Every day, except Sunday, Jean toils away. Instead of patients, this former nurse from Hanover County now nurtures nature.

“I can’t come into a garden without pulling a weed,” she said. “I trimmed all of my azaleas down after they bloomed.”

She has a bountiful backyard boasting flowers and fruits. Gardening keeps Jean one step ahead of old age.

“Well with arthritis you have to move. The more you move the less you hurt,” said Jean.

She has spent all but three of her 87 years living in her own green patch of Heaven, just east of Ashland.

“I’ll tell you. It is a great place to be,” she said.

Jean knows every nook and cranny of her neighborhood off Route 54.

“I guess when you have been brought up in a place and have a sense of community you feel like you belong,” said Jean.

She worships around the corner. And the building next door was Jean’s childhood schoolhouse in the 1930s.

This octogenarian with a green thumb appreciates her family tree.

“Almost everything I know I learned from [grandmother]. Always felt blessed to be raised by grandmother,” said Jean.

The pull of the past is sparking a new interest.

“This has been one of the most exciting things in my latter years. I wake up for it,” said Jean. “I think about it every day.”

With the zeal of someone half her age, Jean pours her passion into an all-but-forgotten corner of the county.

“We want our ancestors to be properly recognized. They are a great part of the building of America,” said Jean.

It's a short drive from Jean’s home along a rough, rural road that punishes the most durable of vehicles. Sitting silently on private land, hiding in plain sight are four acres of woods that draws Jean’s attention.

“It is very peaceful,” said Jean. “It is. This is hallowed ground.”

On this spot is where the Hanover native can trace her heritage.

“Standing here is like communicating with the dead souls,” Jean said.

Hickory Hill Slave and African American Cemetery was once part of a sprawling 3,400 acre plantation.

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“No. It didn’t always look like this. When I was a child and came in here, it didn’t look like this,” recalled Jean.

The burial ground is the final resting place of at least 149 people -- including Jean’s great-great grandparents who were enslaved on this land.

“Yes. Hannah and William Tolliver,” said Jean.

This cemetery was active for nearly a century-and-a-half, from 1820 through about 1950.

“There is one. Two. Three. Then if I turn around there is four. There are five graves right here together.”

Mother Nature and neglect have not been kind since.

“Well, the conditions now is that it is a catastrophe,” said Jean.

Only a few stone and metal memorials survive.

“There is a marker there,” said Jean. “That the undertaker would put on your grave, but you can’t read it because it was just paper inside and it was washed away.”

Dozens of depressions side-by-side mark burials sites across the landscape.

“To know they are laying under this sod,” said Jean. “And have been forgotten for so many years. It almost brings you to tears.”

But slowly this place -- related to death -- is showing signs of life. Jean and a team of volunteers are cleaning up brush and cutting down trees.

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“I appreciate the help they’ve given,” said Jean.

It’s an effort 30 years in the making.

“Some don’t even have a connection here, but they are willing to come in and help. Which lets me know there are good people out there,” said Jean.

The group of friends is making progress. The cemetery was recently listed on the historic register.

“We have not had people working here who look like me,” said Jean. “We’ve seen the goodness in people. It goes past your skin color.”

Eventually, she envisions a place of reflection and education. But much work needs to be done.

“There is just something that is different about a cemetery that is different from everyplace else,” said Jean.

This descendant of enslaved workers hopes she lives to see the project completed.

“The people that are buried here don’t have the opportunities I have. They weren’t allowed to have the freedom that I have. To do things that I do,” said Jean.

Driven by a desire to honor her ancestors, she is not stopping. Jean Folly, a retiree nurturing the long, lost past to help her roots grow.

“It is one of the highlights of my life. It really is,” said Jean. “There is no point in being alive if you’re not useful. I think everyone needs a purpose and this gives me purpose. My heart is here.”

If you would like to volunteer during a cleanup or learn more about the Hickory Hill Slave and African American Cemetery, click here.

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