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Keeping the Faith

A conflict over two of the city’s historic African-American cemeteries threatens to undermine restoration efforts.

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For Veronica Davis, the nonprofit acquisition of two historic African-American cemeteries was the realization of a dream she'd nurtured for 20 years.

Davis, a Hampton resident, is a historian who first came to Evergreen Cemetery in Richmond's East End in 1999, when she was president of the Maggie Walker Foundation. Shocked by signs of neglect and dense overgrowth at the burial site of the banking and civic leader, Davis began clearing brush, leading cemetery tours and seeking allies to help restore historic African-American cemeteries across the state. Her hope all along has been to see the sites take on a national role similar to that of Arlington National Cemetery, becoming destinations for visitors and a place of comfort to descendants of the thousands buried there.

Davis says the Enrichmond Foundation, the nonprofit that bought Evergreen from Isaiah Entzminger in 2017 and is set to acquire the adjacent East End Cemetery, is the right steward for this sacred land. Although personal problems and health issues sidelined Davis from active work several years ago, she says Enrichmond reached out to her early in the process, even sending someone down to visit her in Hampton. When she finally met John Sydnor, the executive director of Enrichmond, after weeks talking over the phone, she says, "I gave him a hug, and I have to be honest with you, in that moment I started crying, because here is a dream that is being realized."

The grave of George Washington Turner is in a cleared section of East End Cemetery. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The grave of George Washington Turner is in a cleared section of East End Cemetery.

Although Davis and others welcome the acquisition, it hasn't been without controversy.

These segregated cemeteries are the final resting places of such prominent Richmonders as Walker, journalist John Mitchell Jr., the Rev. John Andrew Bowler and tens of thousands of everyday people. Under Jim Crow and the disenfranchisement of African-Americans following Reconstruction, [many of African-American cemeteries] were defunded and abandoned while tax dollars flowed into Confederate memorials and burial grounds like Hollywood Cemetery, segregated in Richmond until 1970.

Over the decades, regular maintenance fell to family members and volunteer groups. The history behind these restoration efforts is as twisted and gnarled as the tree roots snaking between graves. That twisted history may help explain some of the controversy that's arisen.

From the perspective of Brian Palmer, a journalist who moved to Richmond while working on a documentary about his own hidden family roots, the acquisition was a behind-closed-doors deal between the Commonwealth of Virginia and a private entity, and he worries that it's a repeat of the institutional failures that first left these sites in disarray.

"We have the actual giving away of a historic and sacred black site," Palmer says, asking how Enrichmond can guarantee that it will maintain the site in perpetuity. He describes a recent grant of $400,000 through the Virginia Outdoors Foundation as a cash transfer to a nonprofit he thinks is too small and too inexperienced to handle the work.

"Couldn't the state have done something different in the 21st century?" he asks.

Although he says the funding is a smaller issue, Palmer is concerned that the sites are being "treated as commodities, not community assets."

Due to legislation passed in 2017, each cemetery receives state funding similar to the funding Confederate gravesites have long received. The bill provides $5 per grave of any African-American who lived between 1800 and 1900. As reported in the Richmond Free Press in February 2017, there are 6,975 such graves in East End and Evergreen, bringing the total annual funding to $34,875. According to a Freedom of Information Act request Palmer filed with the Department of Historic Resources, Enrichmond has already received $10,500 through this.

Brian  Palmer, with the help of his wife Erin Palmer Holloway, and volunteers of the Friends of East End group, have cleared nearly half of the 12 or 13 acres of the East End Cemetery. According to the group’s website, it has “logged graves, documented headstones and connected descendants with their family, many for the first time in decades.” - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Brian Palmer, with the help of his wife Erin Palmer Holloway, and volunteers of the Friends of East End group, have cleared nearly half of the 12 or 13 acres of the East End Cemetery. According to the group’s website, it has “logged graves, documented headstones and connected descendants with their family, many for the first time in decades.”

Palmer's a newer arrival to Richmond, but he has deep ties to the cemetery and the region. While researching his family, he discovered they'd lived in Magruder, a historic African-American community that was displaced by the U.S. Army. That led him to the grave of his great-grandfather, Matthew Palmer, who was buried in Camp Perry. With his wife, Erin Holloway Palmer, and volunteers of the Friends of East End group, he's cleared nearly half the 12 or 13 acres suitable for burial on the East End site. They've logged graves, documented headstones and connected descendants with their family, many for the first time in decades.

Even as he continues the hard work of restoration, Palmer has gone to court hearings with the Friends to ask for "a direct and substantive role in planning and decision-making" for the families of people buried in East End cemetery, which is considered abandoned and has no current owner. Those hearings ended with no rules imposed on Enrichmond, which is on the cusp of acquiring the site after it pays any outstanding back taxes and liens on the land.

Although the cemetery restoration is a volunteer effort, Palmer's professional work is focused to similar ends. He's been a journalist for some 30 years with long stints overseas. He worked in Beijing as the bureau chief of U.S. News & World Report and in Iraq for CNN, and later directed "Full Disclosure," his award-winning documentary about embedding with the Marine Corps in Iraq. After going freelance, though, Palmer shifted his focus to domestic conflicts, reporting on the legacy of the Confederacy and the people who still defend it. That effort has included a series for Colorlines, titled "Race Trips," and a more recent piece, "The Costs of the Confederacy," the subject of a talk he gave at Chop Suey Books recently.

Brian Palmer is joined by volunteers for a morning of cleanup in February. Members of the Friends of the East End group have been working in the cemetery since 2013. They have uncovered nearly 3,000 grave markers. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Brian Palmer is joined by volunteers for a morning of cleanup in February. Members of the Friends of the East End group have been working in the cemetery since 2013. They have uncovered nearly 3,000 grave markers.

Published in Smithsonian magazine, the piece is the end result of a year spent visiting Confederate sites across the South. Palmer and his co-author, Seth Freed Wessler, write that at these sites, what's known as the Lost Cause narrative — which minimizes the evils of slavery and distorts the Civil War — is being funded by public money to the tune of $40 million over the last decade alone. This is just part of a long history of public money being used to uphold the Confederacy, says Palmer, who worries that we're repeating the mistakes of the past by letting historic African-American cemeteries go into private ownership.

While Sydnor praises Palmer's work and intentions, he disputes both his description of Enrichmond and his interpretation of the grant. He stresses that Enrichmond is a 28-year-old organization originally founded by the city to support public spaces, such as Belle Isle, which was in danger of private acquisition before Enrichmond partnered with the city to establish a permanent easement.

In terms of size and experience, he says the organization has grown to eight permanent employees, including Ted Maris-Wolf, a historian and specialist in African-American genealogy, employed as the caretaker of Evergreen Cemetery. It also took in $900,025 with expenses more than $1 million according to a 2017 tax filing, all prior to receiving any funds from the Virginia Outdoors Foundation.

"We purchased Evergreen with our own money," Sydnor adds, describing years of negotiations with the owners, in accordance with a plan the previous director of Enrichmond drafted eight years ago. Those long negotiations to buy Evergreen from Entzminger began in 2012. "I had to earn their trust and we knew that," Sydnor says. "I was meeting with them, having breakfast with Mr. Entzminger, working burials with them."

Amir Abdul Mateen, 11, works to clear underbrush at Evergreen Cemetery on March 2. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Amir Abdul Mateen, 11, works to clear underbrush at Evergreen Cemetery on March 2.

He says it was important to learn what was needed to maintain the cemetery, and as the only employee of Enrichmond at the time, he started volunteering and helping Entzminger, who was struggling to keep up with the work despite age and illness. When the purchase went through, it cost $140,000, mostly to pay back federal and state taxes the property had accrued.

Sydnor's supporters say they're encouraged by what they've seen since Enrichmond purchased Evergreen: The nonprofit will bring in AmeriCorps volunteers, has expanded the genealogy work on the site, hired a full-time caretaker, and has made important site improvements at Evergreen, such as opening road access and adding interpretation and maps.

Palmer questions the legality or at least the ethics of the process that began before Enrichmond purchased the land. He asks if grass-roots groups couldn't have been considered as the preservation partner, noting that if money is what was needed, the current volunteers, family members and other community stakeholders would have been able to use the grant that went to Enrichmond. For an alternative model, he points to the Preservers of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery group, which worked with Preservation Virginia to protect a smaller African-American cemetery in Charlottesville.

Brett Glymph, executive director of the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, echoes Sydnor in her praise for Palmer and the Friends, but firmly denies any illegal or unethical behavior. Although Palmer says he was blindsided by the money flowing to Enrichmond, Glymph says it was always the plan, and she says she doesn't know why there is any confusion.

"Our statutes control that. In order to give the grant, we have to receive a real estate interest, which can only be conveyed by the owner. That's not some contrivance, that's the way a real estate foundation works," she says. Because Enrichmond was already planning to buy the land, it was the obvious partner, she says.

John Mitchell stands near the grave of his great-grandfather, Col. Thomas William Mitchell, deep in Evergreen Cemetery. The grave was vandalized years ago. The obelisk was toppled and a helmet that sat on top was stolen. Mitchell serves on Enrichmond’s board and is a longtime volunteer. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • John Mitchell stands near the grave of his great-grandfather, Col. Thomas William Mitchell, deep in Evergreen Cemetery. The grave was vandalized years ago. The obelisk was toppled and a helmet that sat on top was stolen. Mitchell serves on Enrichmond’s board and is a longtime volunteer.

As to the fitness of Enrichmond, Glymph says a thorough vetting process that included checking with the City of Richmond and reviewing the group's long-standing easement on Belle Isle convinced her it was the right partner.

"[The city said] they created this foundation to do these sorts of things," Glymph says. "They get an ongoing appropriation from the city, so they're city supported, with a 28-year track record."

Ryan Smith, a history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who researches the cemeteries and coordinates the Richmond Cemeteries project, disagrees that the process was thorough.

"They reached the most expedient solution but not the best one," he says, noting that a single partner was proposed and accepted, without considering other nonprofits or groups. He thinks the process wasn't fair to the Friends, who, he says, "have the best interest of that site in mind and the proof is in their actions. They've cleared two-thirds of the site on their own."

Both Glymph and Sydnor praised the restoration work done so far, and despite the breach, say they'd like to work with the Friends going forward.

"It's unfortunate that things have soured," Glymph says.

She hopes that Palmer will come back to the partnership and even join the expert advisory committee established to provide oversight. The committee, which includes former state legislator and Richmond City Councilor Viola Baskerville and John Mitchell, a descendant and namesake of the famous newspaper editor, holds regular public meetings and is working with Enrichmond and others to draft long-term plans for the sites.

Palmer says he won't join unless the expert committee can be an equal partner with binding authority, pointing to language in the charter that allows for the dissolution of the board under Enrichmond.

Sydnor acknowledges that language, but denies any underhanded motives. "That's legalese," he says. "Contracts are written by lawyers to deal with worst-case scenarios."

At the end of the day, he says Enrichmond is liable for anything that happens on its property, and by law, can't give volunteer groups the level of control that Palmer is asking for. He notes that John Shuck, the volunteer coordinator for the Friends, is a member of the expert board, and reiterated that Palmer would be a welcome addition.

He says he's sympathetic to concerns around access, but he hopes the 28-year history Enrichmond has with other volunteer groups could provide some reassurance.

"We're new to their sacred space, where they've given a lot of time and effort," he says, describing discussions he's had with members of the Friends. "I think they're worried that we're going to block access, and what we've tried to convey is that Enrichmond, for 28 years, has achieved success through supporting volunteer efforts. Why would we take away a dedicated group of people who are reclaiming graves in a historic African-American grave site?"

The grave of Alfonzo Robinson is in a cleared section of Evergreen Cemetery. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The grave of Alfonzo Robinson is in a cleared section of Evergreen Cemetery.

In addition to their reputation, Sydnor says they face legal oversight, such as the regulations mandated by the state Department of Historic Resources, and have worked with groups such as the Elegba Folklore Society, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society of Richmond and the Black History Museum of Richmond, all of which support the acquisition. He hopes that volunteers remain committed, and says Enrichmond just wants to provide protection for the land on which their work happens.

Baskerville, who helped negotiate the deal as a member of the Virginia Outdoors Foundation and has ancestors in both sites, says she too hopes that all the volunteers will remain involved. "They're the heartbeat," she says. "This project is at this stage because the volunteers always kept the faith."

She suggests that the conflict comes from confusion around what ownership means, pointing to the permanent easement over the land as its legal protection.

"Enrichmond is not trying to control us," she says. "If you take the 60,000-foot view of this project, it is the people that are in control of what this project looks like, what the space will look like. It is the people that hold this sacred memory and the vision for the future. Enrichmond is just the legal owner and the steward of the property. I think if people can separate those two, that will help defuse a lot of this tension."

Palmer says he can't separate the issues, especially after a process that he characterizes as misleading and manipulative. Glymph says that wasn't her intention, but she regrets that there were misunderstandings or miscommunications.

"This is the first time we've done something like this," though, she says. While it didn't go perfectly, she thinks it went as well as it could have, but she's worried now that the conflict will overshadow the work.

"We have this one group that is critical, but I don't think that should detract from all the support, good will, and good work that has been done to date," she says. "Those roads into Evergreen, which have been opened for the first time in many, many years, have allowed so many families to come in and find their family plots, or at least give them the confidence that they can be found."

"If I could go back and do it again, I would," she says about the grant, even despite the risk and the misunderstandings. In the maps and aerial views, she says, "You could visibly see Jim Crow. It was a moral imperative that something be done, and we did it, and I'm hoping it will set an example for people to do something across the whole Commonwealth."

Descendant John Mitchell says that while everybody may not agree on how to do things, he believes they agree on the overall goal.

"I don't see anything wrong with dissension. I think even though we disagree, we can get things done," says Mitchell. "Everybody agrees we need to clear it, and that's what we're doing. And I'm glad to see it's a very multicultural thing. … it's a beautiful opportunity. Twenty years from now, I want them to see that the citizens did this."

Asked about next steps in their fight against the acquisition, Palmer says the group operates democratically, and any decision will come out of a consensus established during its weekly phone call.

He's certain about one thing, though: "We're going to keep doing what we do. We're going to show up every Saturday and continue the work of restoring this sacred site, just as we've done since the middle of June 2013."

Clarification from the author: Due to legislation passed in 2017, the owner of each cemetery can receive state funding similar to the funding Confederate gravesites have long received, though it is just starting. Also, a sentence was changed to reflect that, while the two Richmond cemeteries were not "defunded" during Jim Crow, similar cemeteries of the period were.

Correction: Belle Isle is owned by the city of Richmond and Matthew Palmer is buried at Camp Perry, not East End. Style regrets the errors.

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