By Kofi Mframa
Hidden beneath the foliage at East End Cemetery are gravestones split in half, sunken into the earth and grave markers divorced from the bodies they honor. The Richmond cemetery is littered with fallen trees and debris.
East End is not the only cemetery to find this fate. Historically Black and African American cemeteries across Virginia have been neglected for years. The tide is just now starting to turn.
Brian Palmer is the founder of Friends of East End, an all-volunteer nonprofit established in 2017 that works to restore and maintain East End Cemetery. Manual labor, like pulling up vines and removing trash, is only half of the organization’s work.
The nonprofit also documents found headstones and researches the individuals buried there. Students from University of Richmond, Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Union University have been the nonprofit’s main source of labor and interest, Palmer said.
Through their collaboration, they have created a digital database that maps over 3,000 graves.
“We want people to be able to find their loved ones, even if they can’t be physically present,” he said.
Jim Crow comes down in ‘full force’
The cemetery hasn’t always been in its current state. East End was founded in 1897 and Evergreen, another historically Black cemetery in the area, was founded in 1891. Civic leader and banker Maggie L. Walker is buried at Evergreen.
An estimated 15,000 people are buried at East End Cemetery. There are an estimated 10,000 plots at Evergreen Cemetery.
Churches, mutual aid societies and families once cared for the cemeteries but they fell into disrepair.
“They were, you know, really quite lovely places for decades,” Palmer said. “And then the power of Jim Crow came down on Black people full force.”
Jim Crow laws caused Black Richmonders to leave the city and others to move up from the Deep South. Palmer believes this caused a disconnect between the cemetery and the community, as those who had been there since birth were replaced with outsiders.
Palmer points to the well-funded preservation of Confederate grave markers.
“They have been literally invested in money and time and labor, but there’s also a kind of popular significance assigned to them and that is less so with the sites that we care about,” Palmer said.
Virginia’s legislature spent roughly $9 million in today’s money for the care of Confederate graves since 1902, according to Smithsonian Magazine. The United Daughters of the Confederacy, a Confederate hereditary association, received state funds that were distributed to local UDC chapters and the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
This funding recently stopped, according to Stephanie Williams, deputy director of the Department of Historic Resources. The last budget to include $83,570 to the UDC was fiscal year 2022.
Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, passed a bill in 2017 that dedicated state dollars to help maintain Black cemeteries. This bill provided $5 per grave marker for African Americans buried in the East End and Evergreen cemeteries who lived between 1800 and 1900.
The scope of McQuinn’s bill was expanded over a few years to include historical African American cemeteries throughout the state that were established before 1948.
The state’s current budget allocates $250,000 toward the preservation of the cemeteries at $5 a grave, or the average actual routine maintenance, whichever is greater. Currently there are 34 cemeteries receiving state money for preservation and care.
How to rebuild from the Enrichmond fiasco?
Enrichmond Foundation, a nonprofit that supported the city of Richmond’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities, acquired Evergreen Cemetery in 2017.
Enrichmond received a $400,000 grant from the Virginia Outdoors Foundation a year prior, to help restore Evergreen and East End cemeteries.
But the foundation would ultimately prove to be unqualified to take care of these historic sites.
Friends of East End sounded the alarm before Enrichmond suddenly folded with hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding. The current Attorney General Jason Miyares said his office is investigating, and the mayor has previously indicated federal authorities could also be involved. There has been no update on the investigation.
Enrichmond did not have the capacity or the knowledge to do the work it committed to do, according to Palmer. This is a criticism that several community organizations had from the beginning. Looking forward, Palmer hopes there can be better collaboration, something that was missing under Enrichmond.
“All they had were political friends,” Palmer said. “And for some reason the political friends wanted to put these cemeteries in their hands.”
History professor Ryan Smith has taught classes on Richmond’s historic cemeteries at Virginia Commonwealth University for about a decade.
Why Enrichmond was selected for the funding, how they acquired the cemeteries, and their internal strategy “was very opaque,” he said.
Smith does not think the city has the resources to properly restore these sites.
“The best thing that they could do would be to create a framework that allows the kind of successful volunteer operations that were working so well before Enrichmond got involved,” Smith said.
The cemeteries still are under the ownership of Parity LLC, the legal entity that represented Enrichmond through its ownership of East End and Evergreen, according to Smith. The dissolution of Parity and Enrichmond makes it difficult for the city to make a legal real estate transaction, Smith said.
Smith published a book two years ago called “Death and Rebirth in a Southern City: Richmond’s Historic Cemeteries.”
“The main argument of that book was, No. 1, that the color line and the lines of race shaped every element of death and burial in the city from its founding through the 20th century,” he said.
But Smith believes things are on the mend.
“We may within the past generation or so, be finding ourselves in a moment where some of those older boundaries are starting to break down and people are starting to care about historical sites in ways that they had not in the past and some opportunities for preservation have opened up,” he said.
Seventh District Councilwoman Cynthia Newbille has hosted community meetings about the future of the cemeteries.
This was the first time in the better part of a decade where people felt that they were genuinely being heard, according to Peighton Young, co-chair of the Descendants Council. The Richmond-based group advocates on behalf of descendants of historic Black cemeteries in the area.
“Right now it’s more of a group effort to try to rectify the consequences of Enrichmond’s behavior, as well as to address the issues that actually allowed Enrichmond to, you know, mistreat those cemeteries for as long as they did,” Young said.
Preservers of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery
As a little girl, Bernadette Whitsett-Hammond would visit her ancestors buried at Daughters of Zion Cemetery in Charlottesville every Memorial Day. The cemetery was built in 1873. Prominent African American figures in Charlottesville were interred there and family and community members maintained the plots.
Like many other cemeteries of its kind, the Daughters of Zion Cemetery fell into disrepair when families moved away and died out.
The city did not take over maintenance of the cemetery because it was owned privately by the namesake organization that disbanded in the 1930s, according to Whitsett-Hammond, a retired school psychologist and Charlottesville native.
Charlottesville declared the cemetery abandoned in the early 1970s and assumed responsibility for its upkeep.
The Preservers of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery formed in 2015. Whitsett-Hammond is a member. They repaired a number of grave markers and deployed ground penetrating radar to unearth burials sunken over time.
“I think it was around 300 initially, and now we’re well past that,” said Edwina St. Rose, a retired administrative judge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Rose is a descendant of those interred at the cemetery.
Their improvements have sparked curiosity in the community, St. Rose said.
The preservers of the cemetery feel supported, but recognize the need for more resources to overcome years of mismanagement.
“By the time people get involved and want to make that effort, the needs are so great for these cemeteries because they’ve been neglected so long,” Whitsett-Hammond said. “A lot of times what funds are available really are a drop in the bucket for what really needs to be done.”
African-American Historical Society of Portsmouth
Mount Calvary Cemetery Complex in Portsmouth opened in 1879, and was closed in 1964. The 13-acre complex includes Mount Calvary and Mount Olive cemeteries, in addition to Fisher’s Hill and a potter’s field where the poor were buried without headstones.
“We had grass probably as tall as we are,” said Dinah Walters, co-chair and member of the African-American Historical Society of Portsmouth.
The historical society got involved with the cemetery in the 1980s and has handled research and restoration.
“Usually if they did set aside some land for African-American cemeteries, it’s probably going to be the worst land that somebody didn’t want,” Walters said.
The city of Portsmouth took over maintenance in 2019. The city’s responsibilities include cutting down trees, picking up trash and taking care of the cemetery plots.
Charles Johnson, president of the society, called this “basic maintenance.”
“When it comes to the actual markers, the grave [sites] and so forth, there is no direct city involvement,” Johnson said.
The cemetery did get help when the state expanded funding for African American cemeteries. They get $5 for each of the 266 graves. That funding is not enough to alleviate the problems, according to Johnson.
“The area is flooding, it’s eroding, the graves are sinking,” Johnson said. “The markers are just going to go farther into the ground.”
Mount Calvary also received help to repair the stone markers of deceased military personnel at a discounted price.
Portsmouth deemed Mount Calvary a “city cemetery” in June 2023. This means it will receive a portion of the $50,000 allocated to the Cemetery Perpetual Care Fund.
“That $50,000 applies to the maintenance, and that’s been an ongoing issue,” Johnson said.
Mount Calvary’s history has been plagued with racism, like many other historically African American cemeteries.
The cemetery experienced a lot of vandalism in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement as it was in a predominantly white neighborhood during this time.
“They just toppled stones, they broke stones, they did so much damage to the area and that’s when the cemetery really started to go down,” Johnson said.
The wrought iron that surrounded the family plots and entrances to the cemetery, as well as urns and shells honoring the deceased, were taken. Currently, the cemetery is dealing with flooding issues because of its low altitude, a common issue with many historical Black cemeteries, according to Johnson.
The group is waiting for a grant from the city to help alleviate the issue.
Mismanagement will only continue unless community members see saving their local, historic cemeteries as a reason to contact their representatives and demand collective action, Johnson said.
“My grandfather told me, if you put your ear to the shell you can hear the sea,” Walters said. “When you die, the seashell will take you back home. That was an old tradition.”
Conch shells used to be scattered around the cemetery, Walters said. There are only two left.
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