Wil­liams

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - REMEBERING - Mwilliams@times­dis­patch.com (804) 649-6815 Twit­ter: @RTDMPW

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.”

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