HAMPTON, Va. (AP) -- The lonely tombstone of U.S. Colored Cavalryman Nelson Ballard stands near a parking lot at Sentara CarePlex and is often missed by passers-by.
But according to the Contraband Historical Society, the tombstone is part of a cemetery site for slaves that marks an important chapter in the history of Hampton and the United States.
The society is stepping up its efforts to secure a cemetery on the grounds of Sentara CarePlex hospital as a public memorial to the slaves who supported the Union Army's victory in the Civil War.
The society believes the graves of more than 50 slaves or freed slaves are on the site of the former Downey Farm that dates back to 1636.
Elois Morgan, the program director of the Contraband Historical Society, said the society is looking to renew efforts to secure the cemetery as a park this year as Hampton celebrates its 400th anniversary year.
The society's president, Gerri Hollins, led efforts to prevent the site from being built on in years past, Morgan said. Hollins' proposals went as far as wanting to invite President Barack Obama to an unveiling of the Nelson Ballard Memorial Park this year.
"This site is historically significant to the Contraband Historical Society, the city of Hampton and the nation because it is symbolic of the Black contribution toward the preservation of the Union and the shaping of America," Morgan said.
"It is part of the chronicle that is uniquely Hampton history and yet American history, and sadly this history has been swept under the rug like so much of the preponderance of Black history," she said.
The society says Sentara promised to donate about 10 acres of land in the past but negotiations have since broken down.
On Tuesday, hospital administrator Debra Flores issued a statement saying Sentara has held discussions with the Historical Contraband Society in the past.
"During that time, Sentara expressed a willingness to consider a small monument marker for the Contraband slave burial site located upon its hospital campus in Hampton," she said in the statement. "The proposed site is wetlands, which poses some limitations to the kind of development that can take place on that site."
Morgan said the cemetery could be a "significant visitor draw" in Hampton and Sentara could capitalize on the site by donating the land and calling it Sentara Nelson Ballard Park.
Phil Adderley, vice president of the society, recounts a recent meeting with Flores. He said Flores floated the idea of bequeathing a 20-foot area around Ballard's headstone.
Hollins said Tuesday the Contraband Historical Society was seeking a larger tract of land than that.
But the hospital is waiting for communication from the historical society, Flores said. "When SCH leadership last spoke to representatives of the society in 2009, representatives from the society were going to talk with the city of Hampton about access to the site. To date, we have not heard anything further on this issue," the statement said.
Hampton Mayor Molly Joseph Ward, who visited the site two years ago, on Tuesday stressed the importance of the city's contraband heritage.
"It's important not just to Hampton but to the state of Virginia and the country," she said. "There are all sort of educational opportunities we should explore together," she said.
The society say the site comprises only a part of the Downey Farm.
Kenneth Quinn, a local historian and amateur archaeologist, heard about the grave site more than 70 years ago. Quinn, who died in 2007, did extensive research on both Ballard and on the farm that had slave quarters on it.
After the Civil War, 303 slaves were receiving rations on the 830-acre Downey Farm, according to Quinn's research.And the society points to a report from a team of archaeologists from the College of William and Mary as further proof of what lies underground. The team, hired by Sentara, found 55 impressions of graves and suspected more were present on the site.
Flores, the CarePlex administrator, said ``Sentara remains willing and available to discuss reasonable options for marking this memorial site.''
About the site At least 55 graves of slaves or freed slaves are believed to be on the Sentara site. The land is on the former Downey Farm, one of many farms confiscated by the Union Army during the Civil War. Slaves grew food to feed the Army.
Contraband Historical Society:
Information from: Daily Press, http://www.dailypress.com