of his great-grandfather, a formerly enslaved Union Army veteran, and that of the pristine memorial to the Unknown Confederate Soldier at York River Presbyterian Church, also on Camp Peary’s grounds.
That moment galvanized Palmer and his wife, Erin Hollaway Palmer, to begin work on a documentary that landed them at East End Cemetery to shoot footage. They happened upon an AfricanAmerican Boy Scout troop working with their hands to uncover history.
“Erin just dug right in and started pulling vines off plots, and it wasn’t until I did that as well that I go that visceral feeling of how powerful that is,” he recalled.
McQuinn’s bill would provide state money for the upkeep of historic African-American cemeteries established before 1900 and owned by a public body or charity. The proposal specifically names Evergreen and East End cemeteries, two graveyards on the Richmond-Henrico line that fell into disrepair after years of neglect. But an official said the bill could be amended in the future to include other graves and cemeteries.
“I think the main thing we’re hoping for is ongoing maintenance,” said John Shuck, among a band of loyal volunteers who have been working to clear, preserve and document the burial grounds since 2013.
Shuck says the graveyard growth gets ahead of the volunteers during the summer months. “It would definitely make a difference. I’m not sure what the total amounts would be, but it would be more than we have now.”
The state’s Department of Planning and Budget would allocate $5 or the average cost of “routine maintenance” for each grave, monument or marker of African-Americans who lived between 1800 and 1900, according to the proposed bill.
McQuinn’s bill lists a total of 6,975 graves, monuments or markers, so we’re potentially talking about $35,000.
“We’re contacting our local legislators to say we support it,” Shuck said.”I guess with all the talks about the budget deficit for the state, I don’t know how realistic it will be to expect it to pass. (But) in the scheme of the state budget, it’s not even a pinprick.”
Lest you say these burial grounds have no historical value, they are the final resting places of Maggie L. Walker, the first black female to found a bank in the U.S.; newspaper editor, civil rights leader and businessman John Mitchell Jr.; pioneering educator Rosa D. Bowser; the Rev. J. Andrew Bowler, an educator who was the first minister of Mount Olivet Baptist Church; and Dr. Richard F. Tancil, a Howard University-trained physician and bank president.
Tancil’s headstone went missing last fall, dramatizing the assault on dignity and the risk to history that the status quo presents.
“Right here in a city that honors history, we have this resource that ... few want to take responsibility for,” Palmer said. “This is a common historical asset and should be regarded as such.”
Palmer didn’t see his passionate role in this preservation coming that day when he was filming cemetery footage for his documentary “Make the Ground Talk.” But the effort to preserve led him and his wife to move from Hampton and establish roots in Church Hill.
“Frankly, the cemetery and the relationships that we’ve built around it with our fellow volunteers and family members, we bought a house, we got a puppy and we’re here. ... It seems and feels kind of crazy. But it truly is an anchor.”
He lauded the work of Shuck and other volunteers who’ve been toiling at East End since 2013, including Bruce Tarr, Melissa Pocock and Justin Curtis. Those folks, along with his wife, have gone beyond clearing and digging to do historical and legal research on the properties.
And now, Palmer has taken the story of Richmond’s neglected black cemeteries to New York Times readers and found that our story is, sadly, unoriginal.
“Most people are saying, ‘Wow, I didn’t know there was this preferential treatment for particular cemeteries,’ and others are saying, ‘Wow, we have similar African-American cemeteries in our neighborhood.’ ” A photographer at the Times reached out to him to say he was working to preserve a cemetery in Alabama.
“I am now part of a network that existed before and hopefully will be getting bigger and stronger after me or with me,” Palmer said. “It’s important work.”
And it’s work in Virginia that needs support from a legislative body whose bias and neglect historically shortchanged African-Americans from the cradle to the grave.
“That would be a beautiful first step over this truth and reconciliation about our history that many people talk about,” Palmer said. “You can talk, but this could be action.”