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January 24, 2022

Graveyard Reflections

From 360° Asheville School Views Magazine, Winter 2022

When teachers Tim and Helen Plaehn moved to Asheville School in 2006, they discovered a tucked-away meditative spot on campus—the Sulphur Springs Cemetery. Located atop a wooded knoll alongside the entrance to campus, this historic graveyard dates to the eighteenth century and includes a section dedicated to enslaved people. “There are so many stories captured among the graves,” Helen Plaehn says. Those stories inspired the Plaehns and Maggie Ruch Frelinghuysen, all Humanities teachers, to create a lesson plan that takes classes on a visit to the cemetery as students study the Civil War and while they are reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It is one thing to discuss the Civil War, but quite another to visit a physical location where you can observe the lasting effects of divisive conflict. 

“We have the students stand between an almost entirely white family cemetery and a slave cemetery—stand on a literal divide—and we ask them to contemplate what it meant for this nation to be on the brink of war,” Frelinghuysen says. “What it meant for brother to take arms against brother. What it meant to fight for the freedom of an entire population of people.” Study materials include original preserved documents. “We have the journals of a woman who owned the Sulphur Springs Hotel during the nineteenth century,” Plaehn says, “and these journals reference the people who lived and died on this land under slavery.”

Students reflect on the power of this visit once they return to the classroom in the form of a personal essay. One student, Bella Ostlund ’18, said the walk was a turning point in her own understanding of racial strife in the United States. “Stepping over stones and unmarked graves, I crept through the darkness surrounding me,” she wrote in her reflection piece. “For me, seeing the clear line between where the white people are buried versus the black, the unmarked graves, and just the sharp difference between the two races shocked me. This evidence exists in our backyards.”

The lesson gives students the chance to speak plainly together about history, change, and the current political climate. Ostlund ended her piece on a thoughtful note: “As Audre Lorde so eloquently puts it, ‘It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept and celebrate those differences.’ No one can go their life hiding behind this whitewash of society that has been painted on after the Civil War until the present day and still feel scared to discuss race. Going into high school, I began to understand this need to not feel uncomfortable around the topic but to recognize it, which brings acceptance and the absence of racism.”