Posts Tagged ‘cemeteries’

Recovering one plot at a time at Evergreen Cemetery

Clearing Evergreen CemeteryI helped bring Oliver A. Scott and Edloe B. Scott back to life.

Not really, but their burial plots at Evergreen Cemetery are at least once again free from the shackles of garbage, ivy, broken trees and ravages of Mother Nature reclaiming a forgotten landscape.

It took at least four hours of work, but a group of volunteers and I worked to reclaim the lost cemetery. It is a daunting task to completely remove more than half a century of neglect, but rewarding. This kind of work needs to be delicate so as not to disturb the graves — you can’t just clear-cut the entire landscape.

Volunteers from VCU at Evergreen CemeteryFormed in 1891 in Richmond’s East End, the express purpose of the Evergreen Cemetery Association was to establish a black cemetery that would rival Hollywood Cemetery.  It became the final resting place of many of Richmond’s leading African-American citizens, including Maggie Lena Walker, John Mitchell, Jr., and Rev. Andrew Bowler.

Opened with no means for perpetual care, the cemetery has been left unchecked and is overgrown by trees, ivy (poison and English) and weeds. It has also been terribly vandalized and is littered with dumped garbage.

Volunteers at Evergreen CemeteryThe regular volunteers got there start in Summer 2008 when they took the challenge to search for the grave of Pearl Williams.  What is has become is a quest to find another several thousand lost sites, one by one.

One of the main organizers, John Shuck, called the effort an archeological dig, landscape clearing and genealogical search all in one. I agree. As we worked, I got the feeling that I was resurrecting history — reclaiming something beautiful and valuable that had been lost.

The path coming back to life at Evergreen CemeteryI met a wonderfully delightful and invested 12-year-old boy, Noah (green jacket, above), who comes out with his father, Mike, every weekend. Noah was quite experienced with encouraging and guiding volunteers on what needed to be done and helping set goals within a three-hour work time frame.

We picked a plot that had a suspected path next to it and by the end of the day the group had cleared two and a half plots and uncovered the path. Envisioning a goal and attacking it.  Plus, the conversation was uplifting and positive — a great environment for giving your time for a good cause.

Oliver A. Scott family plot at Evergreen CemeteryClearing the cemetery will take years, and the small core of volunteers needs your help. Rally your friends and family and give three hours of your time one Saturday morning. Get a troop together. As you can see at right, we got a lot accomplished in one day. Compare it with the photo at top, which was after about an hours work.

See more:
Evergreen Cemetery Families: Yahoo Group & Twitter
Richmond Times-Dispatch: Michael Paul Williams
Church Hill People’s News: Evergreen Cemetery
Flickr photo group: Evergreen Cemetery

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Touring forgotten Evergreen Cemetery

Images of Evergreen Cemetery in Richmond, VirginiaI was given a tour of a forgotten land. It would have been more encouraging if it had been in a Central American jungle and we were looking for the ruins of a Mayan temple. No, it was Richmond, and we were seeking the ruins of what was supposed to be a symbol of blacks finding a measure of equality.

My tour guide was John Shuck and he is leading a group of volunteers trying to recover the jungle that has become Evergreen Cemetery, located in the far East End of Richmond. From the book Built by Blacks, by Selden Richardson:

[It] was created in 1891. It was laid out by the Evergreen Cemetery Association on a high ridge overlooking the valley formed by Stony Run and Gillies Creek; it was planned to be the African American equivalent of Richmond’s high-style Hollywood Cemetery for whites.  From below, dense woods obscure the effect of the massed monuments on its hillside, and the historic gravestones extend deep into the woods, where the dead are forgotten amid overgrown paths, upturned monuments and anonymous graves.

Maggie L. Walker at Evergreen CemeteryIt became the final resting place of many of Richmond’s leading African-American citizens, including Maggie Lena Walker and John Mitchell, Jr. Their plots and the surrounding plots are cleared, though roughly. There are thousands that aren’t, many forever lost.

Opened with no means for perpetual care, the cemetery has been left unchecked and is overgrown by trees, ivy (poison and English) and weeds. It has also been terribly vandalized and is littered with dumped garbage. From Built by Blacks:

The message that Evergreen first broadcast, that of parity and permanence, has become defused and blunted. The neglected cemetery distresses and confuses its few visitors, and the architecture of what was intended to be a memorial park can affect those who enter it.

Read Built by Blacks or Here I Lay My Burdens Down: A History of the Black Cemeteries of Richmond, Virginia by Veronica Davis. Gather your friends and do something about the cemetery.

See more:
Evergreen Cemetery Families: Yahoo Group & Twitter
Richmond Times-Dispatch: Michael Paul Williams
Church Hill People’s News: Evergreen Cemetery
Flickr photo group: Evergreen Cemetery

Shockoe & Hollywood not only neglected cemeteries in Richmond

Katherine Calos of the Richmond Times-Dispatch wrote an excellent story on the volunteer “Friends of” groups that have been organized to help maintain and restore Richmond’s famous Hollywood Cemetery in Oregon Hill and the lesser-celebrated Shockoe Hill Cemetery in Jackson Ward.

The cemeteries, both on the National Register of Historic Places, are the burial grounds for some of Virginia’s most prominent people: U.S. presidents, Supreme Court justices, governors and mayors.

Now the cemeteries are benefiting from two volunteer organizations — Friends of Hollywood Cemetery and Friends of Shockoe Hill Cemetery — that formed recently to bring new attention to the riches and the needs of each place.

Burial plot at Shockoe Hill Cemetery for John Marshall, former chief justice of the United States

It’s good to see something positive written about our historic cemeteries, rather than reports of vandalism, robbery or storm damage.

Hollywood is famous for many reasons and is a tourist attraction for the city.  Shockoe Hill does not have that advantage. A few years ago when I worked for the Times-Dispatch and the Discover Richmond website, I realized that I had never been to any of Richmond’s “other” historic cemeteries. In 2007, I made it my goal to visit as many as I could.

I made a stop on the way to work on morning at Shockoe Hill [see slideshow] — It reminded me of Hollywood for the artistry of the headstones and the fact that it has several famous figures in Richmond’s history — including the Civil War — but the maintainance wasn’t quite what you’d expect at Hollywood.

Hebrew Cemetery in Jackson Ward

Hebrew Cemetery in Jackson Ward

Across Hospital Street, Hebrew Cemetery [see slideshow] is much smaller, so the plots and stones are packed in tight. There is no lack of ornamentation or interesting ironwork in this resting place. You can find so many great family names in our city’s history there as well. My visit there was brief, but the artistic images of that day are still etched in my mind.

A disappointment, I visited the Jewish Cemetery [see slideshow] in Shockoe Bottom expecting to see many stones. Almost all of the markers were moved long ago, and only the large gate is worth seeing.

Fort Harrison National Cemetery in Varina

Of course, there are many Civil War burial grounds that are part of the Richmond National Battlefield Park sites.  My favorite is at Cold Harbor National Cemetery, but I have also visited Glendale, Fort Harrison, Richmond and even City Point in Hopewell.  

The cemeteries are all somewhat similar and the upkeep for these resting places has much more financial backing, but I was told by a groundskeeper at Glendale that the number of visitors to these hallowed grounds are diminishing. I expect that will change as we approach the Sesquicentennial — the 150th Anniversary of the American Civil War (2011-2015).

The cemetery at Blandford Church [see slideshow] is Petersburg’s version of Hollywood Cemetery and is a treasure worth visiting — especially for the Tiffany glass windows inside the church [see slideshow].

Since those visits to most of the cemeteries, I haven’t made many returns (other than Hollywood). The best thing I found about going the cemeteries — besides the artistic beauty I find in the stone markers contrasting with sun and the natural surroundings — is that I have a deeper appreciation for our history and the people who made it. 

When I pass over the Shockoe Valley bridge on Interstate 64 headed toward Richmond, the Hebrew Cemetery is in full view. The tall brick walls surrounding Shockoe Hill Cemetery can also be seen from the highway. Sitting on the rocks at Belle Isle or crossing the Robert E. Lee Bridge downtown, you can see the headstones and the majestic hillside at Hollywood Cemetery. 

There are also other needy and forgotten cemeteries like Oakwood and Evergreen — which the RTD’s Michael Paul Williams has covered extensively. Oakwood was in the news recently for a new iron fence added to a memorial and Evergreen has had several weekend cleanups. 

I plan to volunteer with one of these friends groups some weekend to help clean these cemeteries. Respect these places. Honor the memories of the heroes of Richmond’s past.