Northam proposes cutting budget for Confederate grave maintenance in favor of black cemetery fund

By: - December 19, 2019 12:03 am

The Confederate section of Oakwood Cemetery in Richmond has traditionally received $5 per grave from the state each year to help pay for maintenance. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Gov. Ralph Northam wants to end state funding for the maintenance of Confederate graves, cutting an annual allocation of $83,000 for the United Daughters of the Confederacy from the budget he presented to lawmakers this week.

Instead, Northam proposes using the money to create an African American cemeteries fund.

“The governor chose to prioritize funding for African American cemeteries, which have been historically neglected by the state,” said Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, in an email.

The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus has for years been pushing for funding for historically black cemeteries, many of which lacked the perpetual care funds of their historically white counterparts.

That’s left cemeteries like Evergreen just outside of Richmond, where local African American luminaries that include businesswoman Maggie L. Walker are buried, in a state of over-grown disrepair while a Confederate cemetery just across a ravine is well manicured and tended, with Confederate flags placed neatly by gravesides.

“The difference is night and day,” said Del. Lamont Bagby, who chairs the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, which pitched the budget swap to Northam.

Of the decision to end funding for Confederate graves, Bagby said the caucus didn’t consider it “the best use of taxpayer money.”

According to Smithsonian Magazine, which calculated state support for Confederate cemeteries has totaled $9 million in today’s dollars, Virginia began budgeting for Confederate grave maintenance in 1902.

Under state code, each grave gets $5 a year. All of the money is routed through the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a group that helped lead the push to erect Confederate monuments and memorials around the country as it sought to sanitize the history of the war.

The organization did not respond to phone calls or emails seeking comment, but a representative of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which receives a portion of the funds for the cemeteries it maintains, said the group uses the state money to mow grass, repair broken stones and repair things like benches and gazebos.

(The group does not use the funds to pay for gravestones themselves, which the federal government covers under the same policy it applies to all war veterans.)

But he said he wasn’t surprised by Northam’s move, accusing the governor of pandering after a racist photo was discovered in his medical school yearbook.

“$5 per year, come on,” said the group’s spokesman, Frank Earnest. “Cemeteries have to be maintained, it takes money to do it, and $5 a stone is nothing.”

Northam’s office didn’t respond when asked whether he was specifically opposed to spending money on Confederate graves.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.