2 black burial grounds in Va. on path to jus­tice

Del­e­gate’s bill would pay for up­keep Con­fed­er­ate ceme­ter­ies have long had

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY GRE­GORY S. SCH­NEI­DER

rich­mond — John Mitchell picks his way down the path through the woods, avoid­ing the thick brush on ei­ther side, step­ping gin­gerly over a slab of fallen gran­ite, un­til he gets to the bro­ken crypt.

A jagged hole ex­poses cas­kets to the sky, their metal fix­tures rusted, cov­ers ajar. Eng­lish ivy cas­cades down the sides of the crypt, and a cross and a strange sym­bol have been drawn in black over the open­ing, pos­si­bly by some­one who broke in.

The grave of Mitchell’s great­grand­fa­ther, Thomas Mitchell, is some­where nearby, hid­den un­der vines and tree roots on the hill­side. All around the vi­o­lated crypt, mounds in the ivy mark fallen tomb­stones, piles of col­lapsed iron fenc­ing, gran­ite blocks that once out­lined fam­ily plots.

This is Ev­er­green Ceme­tery, burial ground for some of the elite cit­i­zens of Rich­mond in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Bankers, pub­lish­ers, doc­tors, lawyers — the type of up­per crust who are usu­ally li­on­ized in this city of mon­u­ments. Ex­cept that all of these peo­ple were black, and the city’s grand ceme­ter­ies wouldn’t have them when they died.

Founded 126 years ago, the 60-acre Ev­er­green has no on­go­ing means of sup­port. Only a

network of ded­i­cated vol­un­teers keeps it and the ad­ja­cent East End Ceme­tery from be­ing erased by time and veg­e­ta­tion.

But help may be on the way, in a form that could of­fer hope to other African Amer­i­can ceme­ter­ies across Vir­ginia in sim­i­lar predica­ments. A bill work­ing its way through the Gen­eral Assem­bly would set aside money for Ev­er­green and East End — just as the state al­ready pays for the up­keep of thou­sands of Con­fed­er­ate graves statewide.

“They have been left out of the equa­tion,” said Del. Delores L. McQuinn (D-Rich­mond), who spon­sored the bill. “We’ve got a whole laun­dry list of Con­fed­er­ate ceme­ter­ies and Rev­o­lu­tion­ary ceme­ter­ies that are given money ev­ery year. We’re not ask­ing for any­thing out of the nor­mal.”

Ad­vo­cates say the ef­fort is a sym­bolic first step that rec­og­nizes a press­ing is­sue and sug­gests how much needs to be done. Sav­ing these two ceme­ter­ies will be a bat­tle, but there are myr­iad oth­ers in Vir­ginia not cov­ered by this mea­sure that are as di­lap­i­dated, or are for­got­ten, or that wouldn’t have any­one to keep them up even if the money were avail­able. But it has to start some­where. “Some­times sym­bol­ism is im­por­tant in and of it­self, even if it isn’t go­ing to solve a prob­lem com­pletely,” said Lynn Rainville, a pro­fes­sor at Sweet Briar Col­lege and an ex­pert on African Amer­i­can ceme­ter­ies in Vir­ginia. “Of all the ways to fight so­cial in­jus­tice and all the things that we should or should not be do­ing to­day to right cen­turies of in­jus­tice, to me ceme­ter­ies are im­por­tant — they are open-air mu­se­ums of African Amer­i­can cul­ture.”

Ev­er­green is the older and larger of the two ceme­ter­ies on the east­ern edge of Rich­mond, sit­u­ated on a hill­top with a noisy recycling cen­ter on one side. A cen­tral area of Ev­er­green is cleared of trees, and the old­est sec­tion has been un­cov­ered enough for some fam­i­lies to care for their plots.

Ev­er­green’s most fa­mous oc­cu­pants are buried here — in­clud­ing Maggie Walker, the first woman any race to char­ter a bank in the United States, and John Mitchell Jr., a cru­sad­ing news­pa­per ed­i­tor who staged a protest over street­car seg­re­ga­tion as far back as 1904.

He is the name­sake and great­great-un­cle of the John Mitchell who was vis­it­ing on a re­cent day. At 53, Mitchell, a mu­si­cian, has been com­ing to this ceme­tery his whole life and hear­ing sto­ries about it from his fa­ther, who is now 100.

His dad used to brag about how they once paid “white folks” to keep up the grave­yard. Fi­nally, Mitchell fig­ured out what he meant: “‘White Folks’ was ac­tu­ally a black guy who was very, very light-skinned — that was his nick­name,” he said.

Other sto­ries were about the glory days of black so­ci­ety, when Mitchell and Walker led ri­val banks and Rich­mond’s Jack­son Ward sec­tion was known as the “Black Wall Street.” As a kid, Mitchell had to rec­on­cile those tales with the con­di­tion of the ceme­tery: His un­cle’s head­stone had been stolen, and the statue atop an­other fam­ily grave was top­pled into the dirt.

His fa­ther “used to be­lieve it was some type of ini­ti­a­tion for some type of Con­fed­er­ate guys to ac­tu­ally des­e­crate that mon­u­ment,” Mitchell said, point­ing out that his name­sake once cru­saded against the Con­fed­er­ate stat­ues on Mon­u­ment Av­enue. The fam­ily has since re­stored the grave­stones.

Many of the early buri­als, like Mitchell and Walker, were peo­ple born in the early 1860s — born into slav­ery but raised in free­dom. They were the gen­er­a­tion of Re­con­struc­tion and car­ried fresh hopes of lib­erty, only to age into the heavy back­lash of seg­re­ga­tion and Jim Crow laws.

“All this would’ve flour­ished,” Mitchell said, ges­tur­ing at the crooked head­stones, “if not for Jim Crow.”

The ceme­ter­ies are em­bod­i­ments of that lost prom­ise — the old mon­u­ments shoved aside by trees grow­ing through them, the ground in long rip­ples where the wooden cas­kets be­neath have de­cayed and col­lapsed. Here and there, a bolt of color peeks through the un­der­growth, a flag on the head­stone of a vet­eran from one of the World Wars.

Jim Crow thwarted not only the lives but also the ceme­ter­ies them­selves, Rainville said. Vast numbers of blacks left the South in the early 20th cen­tury to es­cape those restric­tive laws, leav­ing no one to care for the dead.

In that sense, she said, Ev­er­green and East End are lucky. At least they are re­mem­bered, while thou­sands upon thou­sands of other African Amer­i­can burial sites across Vir­ginia are for­got ten.

The ac­tive vol­un­teer groups at both ceme­ter­ies at­tracted the at­ten­tion of the Vir­ginia Out­doors Foun­da­tion, a state-char­tered agency that pre­serves open land. Last year, the foun­da­tion set aside $400,000 to en­able a non­profit to buy Ev­er­green and East End and cre­ate an ease­ment to pro­tect them.

That process is un­der­way — the own­er­ship of both is a le­gal tan­gle in­volv­ing fam­i­lies that hold ti­tle to the prop­er­ties, said Brett Glymph, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the foun­da­tion. While that plays out, Glymph has worked with Molly Ward, Vir­ginia’s sec­re­tary of nat­u­ral re­sources, to get fund­ing for up­keep.

With the sup­port of Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), Ward ap­proached McQuinn about spon­sor­ing a bill in the Gen­eral Assem­bly based on the sec­tion of state law that cov­ers Con­fed­er­ate graves. “This is very lit­tle, very late,” Ward said. “It’s not too late. I think there’s al­ways time to bring jus­tice and eq­uity.”

Equat­ing black ceme­ter­ies of that era with Con­fed­er­ate me­mo­ri­als makes sense, Rainville said. Just as the war dead are honored for their sac­ri­fice on be­half of so­ci­ety, she said, peo­ple who were born into slav­ery “con­trib­uted to the eco­nomic vi­tal­ity of this agri­cul­ture-ori­ented state. And clearly, their ser­vice has yet to be fully rec­og­nized or com­pen­sated in any way.”

This week, the bill cleared the House of Del­e­gates unan­i­mously, car­ry­ing a price tag of $34,875, and headed to the state Se­nate. It opens the door for other ceme­ter­ies to ap­ply for sim­i­lar treat­ment, but they would have to meet strict cri­te­ria — in­clud­ing be­ing es­tab­lished in the 19th cen­tury and hav­ing a non­profit sup­port sys­tem in place.

For Ev­er­green and East End, that means vol­un­teers like John Shuck, a 69-year-old re­tiree who waited one re­cent, frigid morn­ing for a school group to show up to do some clear­ing.

Do­nated shov­els and hedge clip­pers lay in the back of his red Ford pickup. Wear­ing jeans, work boots, a hooded jacket and thick gloves, Shuck was ready for three or four hours of la­bor. Two years ago, he and oth­ers hauled out 1,500 dumped tires. He has a deal with the nearby recycling cen­ter to pick up gath­ered branches and brush, which it shreds into mulch.

“I don’t think that tree was down be­fore,” he said, notic­ing a long, vine-cov­ered trunk across sev­eral graves. “It looks like it just up­rooted. The dirt’s still wet.”

His “be­fore” pic­tures of this area show thick woods; there’s no sign of the 17,000 tombs he es­ti­mates are in East End alone. Now a whole swath has been cleared of un­der­brush. On a sunny win­ter’s day, the graves car­pet a stand of scrub pines and hard­woods. Here and there, a mag­no­lia, a cy­press, a dog­wood sug­gest the park­like land­scape of 100 years ago.

You don’t have to go far to see some­thing like that to­day. Down the hill be­hind Ev­er­green and East End is a pau­per’s field where thou­sands of poor blacks were buried, un­marked, in the 1800s. But up the hill on the other side of the lit­tle val­ley is a very dif­fer­ent burial ground.

Oak­wood is a 171-acre mu­nic­i­pal ceme­tery es­tab­lished in 1856. Next to its elab­o­rate mon­u­ments and rolling lawns is a large sec­tion ded­i­cated to Con­fed­er­ate war dead.

Main­tained by the Sons of Con­fed­er­ate Veter­ans, the graves form a grace­ful arc, each marked by a col­or­ful Con­fed­er­ate flag or bat­tle flag. As these men were dy­ing, the first oc­cu­pants of Ev­er­green and East End were be­ing born.

At the in­ter­sec­tion of Jack­son Cir­cle and Lee Drive, a metal plaque pays trib­ute to the 17,000 sol­diers buried there, “slain in de­fence of the South. In grat­i­tude for their de­vo­tion, the com­mon­wealth of Vir­ginia by act of the Assem­bly of 1930 has pro­vided per­pet­ual care for their graves, a sa­cred trust which the city of Rich­mond rev­er­ently has ac­cepted.”

That grat­i­tude and rev­er­ence are fi­nally about to grow, at least to the next hill­top.


John Mitchell stands near a fam­ily plot in Ev­er­green Ceme­tery in Rich­mond. The largely aban­doned ceme­tery was a vic­tim of Jim Crow, says Mitchell, who reg­u­larly tends to his great-grand­fa­ther’s grave.

African Amer­i­can ceme­ter­ies de­serve fund­ing for up­keep, given that Vir­ginia pays for that of Con­fed­er­ate graves, says Del. Delores L. McQuinn, right, who spon­sored a bill in the Gen­eral Assem­bly.

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