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 great-grandfather, 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 countless others in Virginia not covered by this measure that are as bad, or are forgotten, or that wouldn’t have anyone to keep them up even if 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.
It’s here that Evergreen’s most famous occupants are buried — including Maggie Walker, the first woman of 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 great-great-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 forgotten.
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’d 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.