RICHMOND — Restoration and preservation work is being done on two historic black cemeteries in Richmond.
The privately-owned Evergreen Cemetery dates back to 1891. The 16 acres of land adjacent to Evergreen’s northern border is the East End Cemetery, which was established six years later.
Many prominent figures from the Jim Crow-era were laid to rest at the two adjoining sacred historic cemeteries, including African American icon and businesswoman, Maggie L. Walker.
The descendants of those interred at the cemeteries have been preserving their family plots for over a century.
However, for the past 50 years, the historic cemeteries have suffered from an injured and neglected landscape, including trees, shrubbery and weeds. Additionally, the grounds were the targets of vandalism. After decades of falling into disrepair, the owners were unable to keep up with the demands needed to maintain the grounds.
Unable to find a way forward, the cemeteries’ owners called upon the help of Enrichmond Foundation in 2011. Five years later, the foundation purchased Evergreen Cemetery.
Enrichmond Foundation is a nonprofit organization that works to preserve public spaces in Richmond and empower voices within the community.
The foundation’s executive director, John Sydnor, said that when developing a master plan for the historic cemeteries, the foundation wanted direction to come from the descendants of those interred.
“The very first thing we did was to reach out to the descendant community in 2016 to find a group that could begin to collect those voices,” he said. “How the spaces will be interpreted is a 100% descendant family-led process, not Enrichmond. This is not our plan to make.”
Over a two-year period, the descendant families worked with a firm out of Atlanta and to develop a master plan.
“Our commitment to the descendant family voices will continue well into the future as we unveil the draft preservation plans for Evergreen and East End,” he said.
Their goal is to ‘Do No Harm’ in order to build back what was created in the 1890s without disturbing what the foundation classifies as sacred grounds.
Sydnor said that this is where Enrichmond needed the help of JRIA.
Established by Nick Luccketti in 1986, JRIA is a small, privately-owned cultural resource management firm based out of Williamsburg. They perform archeological and historical research for the military, federal government agencies and nonprofits, like Enrichmond, who have a need for preservation.
“We like to think we’re good at finding things, but also avoiding things too,” said Dr. Matthew Laird, JRIA partner and researcher.
The firm has previously performed services similar to the Evergreen and East End project, such as the Lumpkin’s Slave Jail excavation in Richmond, which was also significant in black history.
Sydnor said that in the four years that Enrichmond has been working on the cemeteries, there’s already been some changes.
“It will shock you,” Sydnor said. “It’s not as bad as it used to be. I couldn’t find a spot that reminded me of what it used to look like.”
Situated over a rolling landscape, surrounded by two major waterways that feed into Gillies Creek, Evergreen and the East End have become more visible since the restoration process began.
“So a lot of progress has been made,” Sydnor said. “But we’re at the point now where we need experts like Matt and Nick to begin identifying where these steps are that descendant family members constantly refer to as playing on when they were young when their families would come to an outing at the cemetery on a Sunday.”
Sydnor said that they have also heard from descendant family members who remember being able to see the James River from Maggie Walker’s family plot when they were children.
“We’re at a point where we’re beginning to identify structures,” Sydnor said. This includes large headstones and structures, such as the original gate and the caretaker’s cottage.
In the 1960s, the caretaker’s cottage at Evergreen was the target of arson, with around 80-85% of all the burial records from that time lost in the fire, Sydnor said.
“There’s a lot of family lore that when the cemetery filled up, the caretakers would close the road to use the space to keep the property going,” he said. “So what may look like a road, may be headstones that have vanished over the years. So we need to know where everything is before we do anything.
JRIA uses state-of-the-art ground penetrating radar, a non-invasive technique to used to perform surveys and identify potential locations.
Luccketti said that JRIA’s job is to facilitate that those that are preserved are not impacted by ground disturbance.
“It’s important that the person who is processing the data and using the technique has experience with archeological sites and understands what these anomalies appear as,” Luccketti said.
For Sydnor, the true power of their work is connecting family members with a lost loved one’s grave site that they haven’t seen for 30 or 40 years.
“It is one of the most amazing experiences reconnecting family members to their lost loved ones,” Sydnor said. “You can’t imagine the emotion. You just want to keep doing that.”
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