Old oaks loom over the graves inside East End Cemetery, a 16-acre burial ground bordering the city of Richmond and Henrico County.
Shafts of sunlight filtering through the foliage illuminate the final resting places of the thousands of black men and women interred there since it opened in 1897.
For years, East End — and its larger counterpart, Evergreen Cemetery — were neglected.
It was only through efforts of determined community volunteers and families of the deceased that the privately-owned cemeteries and the ugly Virginia history they bore witness to — when segregation by race separated Virginians from the cradle to the grave — weren’t left completely to weeds.
A bill that passed in 2017 dedicated state dollars to help maintain black cemeteries in the care of qualified charitable organizations, including the pair of Richmond cemeteries. And a second piece of legislation that passed this year broadened eligibility for the funding to anyone who owned one of the cemeteries, of which there are potentially hundreds of others across the state.
Both were spearheaded by Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond. Supporters say the laws mark a big shift in how the state, long keen on providing money to maintain graves of Confederate soldiers, supports the preservation of African-American history.
“As Evergreen and East End cemeteries — and their present condition — show, African-American history has been dismissed for years in this state,” she said.
‘TRULY IMMORAL AND UNCONSCIONABLE’
The 2017 bill, which sailed through both the House and Senate with unanimous support and was signed by former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, set strict qualifying guidelines for burial grounds to receive the funds.
The cemeteries must have been established before 1900, and had to be owned and operated by a government entity or 501c3 nonprofit organization.
There are more than 150 historic black cemeteries in central Virginia alone, according to researcher and author Lynne Rainville, an anthropological archaeologist and an associate dean at Sweet Briar College. Rainville detailed her years of studying black graveyards in her 2014 book “Hidden History: African-American Cemeteries in Central Virginia.”
“Most gravestones compress a life story into a name and date of birth and death, but … an individual’s passage [is] part of a larger story – a story of families and neighborhoods, successes and failures,” Rainville writes.
Eligible cemeteries can get $5 per grave, monument or marker to interred individuals who “lived at any time between 1800 and 1900,” the law reads.
Virginia still subsidizes the care of Confederate graves, markers, monuments and memorials per state law. In 2017, McAuliffe said it was “truly immoral and unconscionable that we would spend money to honor the Confederate dead without making an equal investment to preserve our historic black cemeteries.”
And in 2017, displays of intolerance and racism, including the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, underscored the importance of expanding and preserving Virginia’s historical narratives, including providing state funds for the upkeep of black burial grounds and remembrance spaces, McQuinn said.
“I think Virginia lawmakers looked at that, and believed we are obligated to do what’s right, under these circumstances,” said McQuinn, who has led volunteer groups in clearing brush and debris from Evergreen Cemetery since the 1990s.
“Trying to address the vegetation issue … was a monumental undertaking, and it was overwhelming. It sort of leaves you walking away feeling like, ‘How can we overcome this?’” she said.
‘I’D NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE THIS’
That challenge is one John Shuck has done his best to meet for the past five years. A longtime volunteer and retired IT analyst, Shuck coordinates groups of volunteers to work inside East End Cemetery and in past years volunteered at Evergreen Cemetery. Every weekend and several weekdays, Shuck leads teams of students, church groups and other volunteers in pulling weeds, clearing kudzu vines and hauling away branches from the grave sites.
“I’m from the Midwest, and all the cemeteries I’d seen were pretty well-maintained,” says Shuck, who moved to Richmond in 2001. Gesturing to the overgrown, shady back sections of the graveyard, he says, “I’d never seen anything like this.”
Shuck’s group, Friends of East End Cemetery, uploads information they uncover on the tombstones to FindAGrave.com.
“It’s an effort to tell these stories and find out who these people were before they are completely lost,” Shuck said.
African-American veterans, doctors and businessmen lie in East End Cemetery, among thousands of men and women who contributed to the fabric of late 19th-century Richmond. In neighboring Evergreen, Maggie Lena Walker, civil rights activist, businesswoman and the first black woman to charter a bank in America, is buried.
So, too, is John Mitchell, Jr., the venerable journalist, anti-lynching activist and editor of The Richmond Planet newspaper.
Mitchell’s nephew and namesake, John Mitchell, says at least four of his family members rest in Evergreen. The state funds for the cemeteries’ care come “better late than never,” he says.
“My father and uncle paid for someone to take care of the cemetery back in the 1960s, so I think a lot of us feel that it’s about time the state decided these spaces were worthy of sustained support.”
‘WE NEED TO HAVE A SEAT AT THE TABLE’
Since HB 1547 was enacted last year, other historic black cemeteries across the state have become eligible for funding as well, including the Mount Calvary Cemetery Complex in Portsmouth and the African-American Burial Ground for the Enslaved at Belmont in Loudoun County.
Like the cemeteries in Richmond, these graveyards qualified for funding because they are owned by nonprofit organizations, as mandated in the original bill, though the changes enacted this year open up funding to any individual or locality to the list of organizations that can receive the maintenance money.
Enrichmond, a nonprofit that supports the City of Richmond’s Department of Parks, Recreation, and Community Facilities, acquired Evergreen Cemetery in 2017 and is also poised to gain ownership of East End.
Evergreen was previously owned by UK Corp, a private business headed by Isaiah Entzminger. The same company owns Woodland Cemetery, where tennis legend Arthur Ashe is buried.
Enrichmond in 2016 received a $400,000 grant from the Virginia Outdoors Foundation and together, the organizations are working to place Evergreen and East End under a conservation easement, to protect them from future development.
Brian Palmer, a multimedia journalist and filmmaker, has worked to clean and clear at least five acres of East End Cemetery alongside his wife, Erin, since 2014. Palmer remains concerned about the role nonprofits like Enrichmond play in not only reclaiming the burial grounds from nature, but also reclaiming the history there.
“If all of this state funding is being directed or given to a private entity, there should be both transparency and accountability,” Palmer said. “The volunteers, the descendants of those interred, we need to have a seat at the table, and to be able to continue the work we’ve been doing for years to restore dignity to these cemeteries.”
Mitchell agrees, and says the main goal of the nonprofits or agencies that own historic African-American cemeteries across Virginia should be to “work directly [toward] the collective vision of the descendants of the people who have been buried there, and their communities.”
The new state money will assist Enrichmond in returning Evergreen, and eventually East End, to places of quiet reflection and respect, befitting the people buried in both cemeteries, says John Sydnor, Enrichmond’s executive director.
“We worked for over six years to acquire Evergreen, because we feel it is vital to understand the history of these places. They tell the story of the city, and a part of the story that has been left out for generations,” he said.
He added the nonprofit’s work has “relied on community guidance and input on how … the restoration process should happen.”
“We continue to value these voices, and we are showing that,” Sydnor said.
To that end, Enrichmond has formed a 25-member advisory team of longtime cemetery volunteers, descendants and community leaders to crystallize and implement that vision at Evergreen and East End. The group meets monthly at Virginia Union University.
Formed in October 2017, Mitchell and Shuck are part of the team, which includes descendants like Johnny Mickens III, the great-grandson of Maggie Walker.
In addition to Shuck, Veronica Davis, author and former director of black cemetery restoration volunteer group Virginia Roots, contributes to the team, as well as representatives from the Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia, the Maggie L. Walker National Park Service site, and other organizations central to Richmond’s black community. Ted Maris-Wolf, who became caretaker of Evergreen Cemetery in 2017, leads the team.
“Enrichmond may be the legal owner of Evergreen, and may become the legal owner of East End, but these are sacred sites that belong to communities in Richmond, and to the historical memories of those communities,” says Maris-Wolf, who formerly oversaw research and historical interpretation at Colonial Williamsburg. “The volunteers — including John Shuck, Friends of East End, [longtime Evergreen Cemetery volunteer] Marvin Harris — and the family members have taught us so much. We could not do this work without them.”
Janine Bell founded Elegba Folklore Society 28 years ago to elevate African and African-American culture in Richmond.
Bell says she joined Enrichmond’s advisory team to ensure Evergreen and East End Cemeteries would be restored with “sensitivity and respect” for the wishes of the descendant community.
Though the state’s new funding stream for historic black burial grounds is “encouraging,” Bell says that the effort to newly illuminate these histories will not be complete unless the organizations entrusted with state money to oversee the cemeteries, collaborate with existing volunteers and those descended from the dead.
“The reality is, and we see this with Enrichmond, these nonprofits and entities may have the monetary resources but not necessarily the cultural resources to complete this mission,” Bell said. “We have to work together. It is imperative that any organization getting these [state] funds understands that the descendant community knows what’s best for the places their ancestors rest.”