Reinvigorating a historic cemetery
The dense, dark woods in Richmond’s East End are a jungly tangle of weeds, kudzu vines, English ivy, dead limbs and leaves. This untamed thicket is part of the city’s historic African American cemetery, Evergreen.
Founded in 1891, when cemeteries were segregated by race, Evergreen was considered “equivalent” to Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery in the west end, where U.S. presidents, Confederate generals and governors lie.
Today, while Hollywood Cemetery is a well-tended tourist site, Evergreen’s headstones have been overturned and vandalized.
Corroded grave markers are covered with dirt and weedy underbrush. Some have vanished. Sunken “bowls” in the ground betray decayed wooden caskets.
Prominent African-American Richmonders are buried here, including pioneering banker and businesswoman Maggie L. Walker; John Mitchell, civil rights activist and editor of the Richmond Planet; and Sarah Garland Boyd Jones, a physician and the first African American woman to pass the state’s medical examination.
“These [people] are just as vital and important as any others that are more well known,” said Viola Baskerville, a descendant of people buried in Evergreen Cemetery and part of a team of volunteers working to restore the cemetery.
Unfortunately, Evergreen did not have a perpetual care fund, that is, a financial system for staff and upkeep. Instead, it relied on family members of the deceased to maintain the grounds.
As families dispersed or passed away, neglect took its toll. The property changed hands several times, and one owner went bankrupt.
Volunteers rescue and restore
In 2017, the nonprofit Enrichmond Foundation purchased Evergreen, recruited supporters and started preparing a restoration plan.
Volunteers are at the heart of the plan. In warm weather, they clean markers, headstones, monuments and ironwork; transform wooded areas to grass and native plants; create parking areas to prevent vehicles from driving over graves; improve storm drainage and upgrade pathways.
The many dedicated volunteers consider it their mission to restore Evergreen and make it beautiful. They tackle invasive vines, whack weeds, trim vegetation and mow the grounds.
Danice Bowles weeds and prunes around graves. “It’s the coolest thing when I discover a marker under the compost and years of leaves and two feet of weeds,” she said. “It’s very rewarding — I can see what I’ve accomplished.”
Other volunteers are compiling a digitized, searchable master list of known graves back to the 1900s — records that will be kept at the Library of Virginia.
Advisory committee member and volunteer Marilyn Campbell has at least 25 relatives buried in Evergreen. In Virginia, she said, “People gave great attention to burying people. African Americans wanted to give their loved ones a great sendoff.”
An act of reconciliation
Evergreen’s restoration has attracted the attention of politicians and international groups.
“Historic Evergreen is a sacred public space that has served as a powerful monument to black achievement, community life and family bonds,” Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said in an email to Fifty Plus.
“I applaud this restoration effort, which reflects our shared values of freedom and service, and stands as a powerful and tangible marker of our progress in promoting justice and reconciliation in our community,” he added.
A year ago, Stoney and First Lady of Virginia Pamela Northam attended a cleanup at the cemetery on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
The same day, the Enrichmond Foundation and Virginia Outdoors Foundation announced they had signed a new conservation easement that preserves Evergreen as a public space and allows only education and visitation buildings on the property.
Last June, UNESCO designated Evergreen Cemetery a “site of memory” associated with the Slave Route Project, an international effort to acknowledge the slave trade and slavery as crimes against humanity.
In a letter announcing the designation, Ali Moussa Iye, the project’s director, wrote, “Historic Evergreen, the final resting place for thousands of African-Americans born during or shortly after the end of slavery, has great potential to encourage reflection on their many contributions to Virginia and United States history.”
Funders have stepped up too, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, Preservation Virginia, Virginia Community Capital, Dominion Energy and the state’s historic preservation programs.
In 2018, Governor Ralph Northam signed Delegate Delores McQuinn’s bill to provide state funding for historic African American cemeteries. (The state has funded Confederate cemeteries, statues and sites for years.)
Expanding the project
Last June, the foundation acquired a second historic African-American cemetery, called East End, next to Evergreen. The burial ground contains 10,000 graves on 17 acres in conditions similar to Evergreen.
The foundation began restoration work there last year, according to John Sydnor, its executive director. “Our mission is to shed light on these neglected, sacred places and the individuals who reside here,” Sydnor said.
“Our purpose is to develop a path forward that will rediscover and advance the weaving of their courageous lives into the history of our city.”
One of those brave individuals was A. D. Price, a man born into slavery who established a blacksmith shop, livery stable and, finally, a successful funeral home in Richmond that endured until a decade ago.
Another, Reverend J. Andrew Bowler, was a Baptist minister who opened the city’s first school for African American children in Church Hill.
Supporters see saving the historic black cemetery as another step toward equality. Ajena Rogers, a member of the foundation’s advisory committee, is inspired by the project’s potential.
“Enslaved Africans in this country endured trials and tribulations in life, and after they passed on, the degradation continued,” she said. “We can contribute to history by taking care of it.”
Evergreen Cemetery is always open. For information, see enrichmond.org/visit-evergreen, or arrange a tour by contacting email@example.com or calling (804) 234-3905. To volunteer, visit enrichmond.org/ volunteer.