Growing up in Richmond, Barry O’Keefe knew about the famous markers at Hollywood Cemetery. But the 25-year-old printmaker was stunned when he recently discovered the history of the densely overgrown East End cemeteries across town, where many of the city’s historically prominent black residents are buried.
Now privately owned, the cemeteries Evergreen, East End, Colored Paupers and Oakwood Colored Paupers section are known collectively as the Four Cemeteries at Evergeen.
The cemeteries’ founders made no provisions for grounds maintenance, leaving families to care for their relatives’ graves. As family members died or moved away, the cemeteries became overgrown. In recent years, local volunteers have been working to reclaim them.
“I read that Bill Bojangles had a plot bought in the East End cemetery, but it was so overgrown his family decided to bury him in New York,” says O’Keefe, a College of William and Mary graduate.
O’Keefe, who is pursuing a master of fine arts degree at Ohio University, decided to create a series of woodcut portraits of unsung black heroes — with subsequent prints from movable type like classic posters. For each image, he wanted to connect those buried in the cemeteries with specific local landmarks.
The idea was to raise $1,500 for maintenance of the cemeteries, O’Keefe says, which would include paying for goats to eat the kudzu.
In January he spent about a month carving three detailed images featuring pioneering black schoolteacher Rosa D. Bowser, the more well-known businesswoman and teacher Maggie L. Walker, and a slave-turned-Richmond Planet newspaper publisher, John Mitchell Jr.
Each image comes in an edition of five, and the prints (measuring 22 1/2 by 30 inches) are available for $115 each through eastendcemetery.tictail.com. The Valentine Richmond History Center will be keep one print of each for its collection, O’Keefe says.
The goal is to raise not only money for the cemeteries but also awareness at a time when the city is discussing the construction of a slavery museum in Shockoe Bottom, O’Keefe says.“We should really focus on pieces of history that aren’t preserved,” he says. “Without a bigger, well-funded effort, most of the cemetery is still in the woods. And it’s a losing battle — every year it regrows. I just hope someone with resources will come along and commit to keeping it up.”