Hidden in Plain Sight

Gravestones tell us a lot about the people whose graves they mark: their birth, death, age, marital status (“cherished wife”), whether or not they had children (“beloved father”), etc. They give clues, too, to the deceased’s financial status: is the marker big and impressive, and sited for maximum effect? Or is it a humble stone, tucked away in a corner, perhaps homemade? One thing most gravestones keep silent about is the skin color of the body buried below. Unless that information is chiseled for us to read (sometimes it is, but rarely) we have no way to know by which race that person identified.

Jackson_Viola_2014_10_19 - Copy

Your webmaster at the grave of Viola Jackson (c. 1892-1914), Gravesend Cemetery, October 19, 2014.

One of the loveliest stones in the Gravesend Cemetery tells its poignant tale obliquely. The tall white marker near the southwestern corner of the fence (where Village Road South and Van Sicklen Street meet) displays two female figures, one tall, one small, embracing above these lines:


A perceptive visitor once remarked that Viola’s stone and those clustered near it are separate visually from the rest of the cemetery. He wondered if she and her neighbors were black. Racial segregation touched every aspect of American life and even left a mark on early graveyards, where sections out of sight — and out of mind — were reserved for “colored” burials. Gravesend also followed this unspoken code, and we learn from the details of her tragic death that Viola Jackson (c. 1892-1914) was indeed African-American. As the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on Sunday, September 13, 1914,

Viola Jackson, 22 years old, a colored domestic employed by a family at 169 Bay Twenty-eighth street, Bensonhurst, was burned in a peculiar manner last night [Saturday, September 12, 1914]. She went to the cellar to bring up a watermelon. She carried a candle. On her way upstairs she slipped and dropped the melon. She tumbled over it and the candle set fire to her dress.

The Eagle’s account reflects the widespread view of African-American activities a century ago: what else could she have been doing but “fetching” that most stereotypically black of fruits? In the New York Herald’s version (Tuesday, September 22, 1914), Viola dropped the match she used to light a stove. However it happened, as the Brooklyn Daily Standard Union added (Sunday, September 13, 1914), “When tenants of the house reached her she was aflame from head to feet.” Rushed to Coney Island Hospital for treatment, she sadly clung to life another week.


The site of Viola Jackson’s tragic accident, 169 Bay 28th Street (the white half of the double-house), as it looked in August 2014. Courtesy of Google Street View.

Copyright © 2016 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)


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