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Saving Evergreen

What does it take to bring a cemetery to life?


REACHING TOWARD A GRAVESTONE, Veronica Davis nearly pricks herself on sharp edges of the past. She rips a fistful of thicket away from the headstone, steps back and inspects the granite.

Half a century ago, she cries, "these graves were bargains!" That was when blacks bought them for their dead.

Today, Evergreen is about the cheapest cemetery around for burials. But by the forlorn look of the place, one wonders if it is a bargain or a curse to end up here. Davis just sees its beauty. A faded plastic tiara that is missing some beads rests atop a tree stump next to a woman's grave. Davis ignores it for now. She looks about the grave for something else. She won't say what. Then Davis flaps her arms excitedly in the direction of what looks like woods. It isn't — it is graveyard.

A jungle has crept across Evergreen for more than 40 years. Weeds, vines, trees and bramble grope nearly every plot within the old section of the cemetery. It is the part of Evergreen people call historic. Tombstones tilt beneath blanketed green heaps. They are everywhere, hidden amid so much vegetation and debris that it seems uncovering them would take an army of workers years to clear.

Evergreen has a "newer" section, too, which is still in use. It is a rocky field, the first thing people see if they come to Evergreen. Mostly, poor blacks are buried here. Metal courtesy markers that look like miniature license plates jut from the ground. Funeral homes provide them when a family can't afford a tomb. Weather and lawnmowers seem to have knocked them about, beating the names off many. Those who can, pay for real monuments, the few and scattered headstones that prop memories up for the living.

Some might say the field and the woods are two separate burying grounds. Both are Evergreen. And while efforts by organizations and individuals to clean up the East End cemetery have sparked interest from time to time, it appears few have worked. Each year the trees and weeds grow back. Paths that were cleared are concealed once more. And the volunteers who start in the spring grow hot and tired by summer. Invariably Evergreen ends up deserted.

The cemetery has endured other problems. The land isn't profitable. People have abused it, dumping all kinds of trash here, and worse. In the 1980s police found two murder victims in Evergreen's woods.

And like other historic Richmond cemeteries, Evergreen's 59 acres are almost full. In two years there won't be room for the dead to rest in the cemetery's irregularly marked field.

Still, Davis and others are determined to rescue the cemetery. It is essential to Richmond's black history, they say.

In five years Evergreen Cemetery will be restored, Davis predicts. If her sanguine proposal works, the ailing private graveyard off Nine Mile Road could look as pristine as the city's Hollywood Cemetery.

First, Davis has to raise $100,000. But what comes next could pose a greater challenge. For her plan to evolve, Davis must convince the black community that Evergreen is worth the rescue. So far, she says, it's been an uphill battle. She blames it on what she calls the mysterious past of Evergreen. "There's something here that people don't want to talk about," she says. housands of Richmond blacks — many prominent, many poor — are buried at Evergreen. The owners of the cemetery, a group of second- and third-generation black funeral home directors who make up the U.K. Corp., say they'd like to see Evergreen restored, its early legacy revived. But they say the company doesn't have the money, manpower, time or obligation to do it alone.

Evergreen's charter dates to 1891. Since then it has been up to families to maintain their relatives' graves. In 1919 the city ordered that any cemetery established after that date must have perpetual-care funds to ensure upkeep. Evergreen and those cemeteries in operation before then were exempted. Today, many who once cared for the plots or paid to have it done have died. Younger families have moved away or left them idle.

As far as anyone knows, the oldest grave at Evergreen dates to 1855. All classes of blacks are buried here. In time, some made history; others repeated it. Maggie L. Walker, founder of the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank and the first woman president of a national bank, is buried at Evergreen. She joined her husband in the family plot in 1934. A large marble cross embellished with lilies by the famous stone mason John Henry Brown marks the Walker family's plot.

Long ago, Richmond's rich and distinguished blacks were memorialized at Evergreen with ornately carved monuments enclosed by wrought-iron fences. The poor have modest stones their families must have sacrificed to afford. The poorest have courtesy markers, tokens from funeral homes, that are replaced with tombstones when loved ones find the means. Many never do.

im Bell, a retired National Park Service Ranger, knows plenty about the weeds, and even more about Evergreen's history. After being transferred to the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site in 1997, Bell immersed himself in an arduous five-year effort to clear Evergreen. In the early days, he recalls, he "had to wade through honeysuckle and briars." But persistence paid off.

For two years during the summer volunteers from AmeriCorps together with area JROTC programs tackled much of the seasonal overgrowth. "It has been frustrating at times trying to get organizations set up and involved," Bell says. "I've been zeroing in on [local] churches but we still haven't gotten the support we had hoped for."

After an article about Bell's project appeared two years ago in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, 50 people showed up one Saturday to help, he recalls. But today, participation is sparse. Today he hopes for a few people with Weed Whackers to come out when they can.

He knows what the cemetery will look like by summer if enough people don't volunteer. "You can't tell the grass to stop growing," he reasons, looking about Evergreen in its early spring state. Still, Bell seems to know there's no use worrying about this. And Bell, 60, has the patience and time to keep killing weeds and cutting trees. Each time he uncovers a bit of path leading to a grave, he gets some satisfaction, he says. "You might not know it, but every 30 feet there's a walkway," he points out, kicking grass where he thinks one is.

eople rarely come to Evergreen Cemetery. Most days the gate is locked. To get there visitors must walk along a paved road lined with pine needles and broken glass. It cuts through portions of several similarly obscured black cemeteries.

It is Easter, and Herbert Christian has a key to the gate. He uses it to fulfill his promise to set a headstone. Christian, a self-proclaimed history buff, owns Old Dominion Monuments. He shovels and cements alone, laboring amid robins trilling in the field. Christian has seen families at Evergreen try to locate loved ones' graves in vain. Three years ago he disinterred some remains because a customer complained that the cemetery's conditions were horrible.

"It's discouraging," Christian says. "There are some graves you can't even read. What upsets me are the ones out here that don't even have courtesy markers."

In most cemeteries headstones face east, he explains, because on resurrection day the Lord is supposed to come from the east. Christian sizes up the scattered tombs and explains that these are clearly not all facing east. It starts to rain just as Christian finishes smoothing the ground with his shovel. The newly cut gravestone on the dolly is ready to be set.

ressed in black, Claude Buckhalter somberly looks for a grave. He finds it. For a long while he stands silent, then kneels to brush it. The tomb holds his daughter, Nicole. Five years ago the car she was riding in struck a telephone pole at 70 miles an hour. She had just finished nursing school. She was celebrating. The driver spent a year in jail.

He never gets used to coming here, he says, and it's never any easier than the first time. Buckhalter used to visit frequently. But now he drives a city bus and his schedule is never the same. His stops are more planned, he confesses.

Buckhalter says he is ashamed of the way the cemetery looks. "This here is bad," he scoffs, kicking the craggy ground. "I was shocked when I saw it," he says regrettably. "We didn't have the funds" to afford anyplace else, he says.

He wishes Evergreen were prettier. Sometimes he gets the feeling that his daughter's spirit is here. They were close, he says. When he drove a taxi he'd take her wherever she asked him to. "She would always call me whenever her car would break down," he says, "which was all the time." The dispatchers all knew her. "I would always carry her back safe."

f there's one thing Davis claims to know, it's her history. Growing up in Georgia, she tended her great Aunt Sophie's gravesite. It ignited a passion for genealogy and research.

But Davis contends much of Evergreen's history is as tangled as its lonesome graves. By her account 5,000 blacks are buried here — not the 50,000 usually reported by others and in newspapers. And for decades, Davis says people have not recognized Evergreen's property lines and confused it with other nearby black cemeteries that are overgrown and neglected too.

Watching for snakes, Davis presses on, confident in her theory that apathy grips Evergreen tighter than weeds. Suddenly, amid some brush Davis spies the clue she had been looking for earlier. It is in a different spot from where she remembered it the last time she inspected the woman's grave. It is a pair of faded pinkish sunglasses. She bows into the thorns to grab the prop like a sparkling shell in the surf. "Here are the sun shades!" Davis bursts aloud.

For a moment she appears to forget the graveyard's decay. Sunglasses in hand, Davis walks a few feet to the woman's grave to grab the weathered plastic tiara from the tree stump. The granite marker next to the stump bears the woman's name. She died in 1999. Davis didn't know her or any of the thousands of black people whose bones sleep at Evergreen.

Still, she strives to connect to them. She has learned to read the "bric-a-brack" and its meaning. As with any clean up, Davis says it is important to be careful. "Look at what you may be throwing away," she says, holding out the sunglasses and tiara. "Cleaning up cemeteries is not just cutting grass and knocking down trees. When you go out and see these things it may take time to know what's trash and what's not."

Davis raises the tiara up to the sun, rotating it like a crystal ball. "Black burials are the most unique in the world, reminiscent of Egypt," she explains. "Your plot depicted who you were. The lady who has this crown was queen of her family and quite beautiful," she tells. She carefully places the headdress back where it belongs. "It doesn't have a name. It's just a tradition."

n Feb. 28, 1996, Carolyn Battle's son, Leonard Pierce, was shot dead on Third Avenue. Since then she hasn't seen any progress in her son's case. Nobody has told her who pulled the trigger, she says. Battle has her suspicions. "The police say he contributed to his own death, but how can someone contribute to his own death?" she asks incredulously. "It was like this was something that just didn't matter." Battle doesn't mind Evergreen, but her son's brothers want to move him to another cemetery.

"He was shot down in the streets of Richmond," she says, her lips quivering. He was a barber. "This was his dearly beloved," she says, pointing to a pair of clippers etched on his tombstone. Battle visits the cemetery regularly. Her son was born on Easter; he died 26 years later, two days before Valentine's Day. "They are real sad times for me," Battle allows.

"From the day he left me I got everything, memories and everything," she says, clutching a grocery bag full of dull plastic flowers. New bright ones that she had just put down line his grave. Today is the first time Battle has seen the granite monument. It was put up in February. "I told the man if you put his headstone in the wrong place I'll know." Its message is strong as stone: We will miss you. Battle says she'll feel it forever. "You can't let people lie in the ground like they're nothing," she says. Her son's father is buried at Evergreen, too, she remarks. Battle hadn't seen his grave before today when she stumbled upon his name.n the course of 42 years spent working for Chiles Funeral Home, Purcell Brown has helped bury more than 8,000 people, many of whom now lie at Evergreen.

"Years ago I can remember when it was much better and had two entrances," he says. Then people started dumping trash. Police found dead bodies. Vandals knocked over graves and stole things like urns and cobblestones. But the biggest change Brown has seen in the business, especially at Evergreen, has been the rise in the number of violent deaths. "We buried two homicide victims in one day," he recalls.

At one time the Maggie Walker Foundation had talked about moving Walker's body to a more respectable cemetery, he says. Brown was asked to research how much it would cost and what would be involved. Ultimately, it was decided Walker should stay at Evergreen. (Davis claims it's in Walker's will.)

Brown suggests that Evergreen has witnessed steadier times. "I remember 20 years ago letters were sent from funeral homes to families who had relatives buried at Evergreen, asking them to tend to the graves or help start a perpetual care fund. I guess few responded," he says. "If it wasn't for the law, you could strike a match and let it go and burn down everything around there."

saiah Entzminger, the soft-spoken, longtime caretaker at Evergreen, agrees that Evergreen is in a flux. As much as anyone, he says, he'd like to see this change. "My idea is to turn it into a nonprofit organization and open it up," he offers. "The records are sort of in a shamble," he confesses, too much for a bookkeeper-turned-cemetery manager to do alone.

Evergreen's history goes back more than a century, he reminds, and reaches back to a time when the city took over only certain cemeteries. Entzminger doesn't say aloud that the city didn't buy black cemeteries. But in the 1930s it didn't. And the city's black cemeteries were left standing alone.

"This is where you get an economy grade. [Evergreen] is of course the worst," he says candidly. But it doesn't mean it is neglected, he insists. "The basic thing is money. People ask 'Why don't you hire somebody to clean it up?' If I had the money, I would hire the world."

Entzminger points to his company's progress with nearby Woodland Cemetery, where Arthur Ashe is buried. It once looked worse than Evergreen, he notes. "I've been chipping away at clearing Evergreen up but it feels like I've been doing it with one arm."

'll tell you this, [Evergreen] wouldn't be my first choice to go for it to be my final resting place," says Will Watkins, 27, the fourth generation of Watkins men who have helped run W.S. & Son Watkins Funeral Home on North Avenue. Watkins' father, Billy, runs the company that is part of the U.K. Corp. which owns Evergreen. Recently, Will Watkins learned of his late grandfather's financial stake in the cemetery. And while it isn't profitable, Evergreen's history intrigues him.

"I've driven the limousine and heard the families sigh and gasp a little bit because they couldn't afford something nicer," he recalls, remembering driving families through Evergreen on the way to a burial. Many of them had never seen the cemetery before, Watkins says. "They feel a little embarrassed."

Watkins says he'd like to help turn Evergreen around. A funeral and burial should respectfully honor the dead, he says. Funerals at Evergreen don't do this.

"The way it is now it's like you're taking a trip to the woods," he concedes. It doesn't have to stay this way. "It could be a gorgeous place to go," he says. It could be like Hollywood Cemetery, he adds, "whether the change is in our lifetime or not."

hree years ago while Veronica Davis was president of the Maggie Walker Foundation, the Georgia native attended a birthday celebration for Walker. It was Davis' first trip to Evergreen. She couldn't believe the overgrowth.

It inspired Davis to join the summer volunteer effort led by a colleague from the Maggie Walker foundation. The program, while successful, did not attract the kind of participation from the local black community that either Davis or Bell had hoped for.

"The irony here is there's been more non-African-American labor out here for two summers," Davis confesses. "It's been a mental hardship on me to know more African-Americans weren't out there." Preachers are buried at Evergreen who still have active congregations. Their graves remain untended by parishioners. "Where are they?" she asks fiercely.

Davis recently started a business she calls Virginia Roots which sponsors tours, events and lectures promoting black culture and history. Her sole mission, she says, is to raise enough money — $100,000 — to set up a trust fund that will provide perpetual care for Evergreen and other black cemeteries like it.

So far, it's a one-woman operation. Despite obvious challenges, Davis is undeterred. Accompanying her on a tour through Evergreen is a bit like going on a scavenger hunt. She's spent two summers at Evergreen and even without her maps she knows its hidden course.

"Jesus, Hallelujah!" she shouts at one point, in a voice that could scare snakes. "Some of what we did last year paid off." Deep in the woods she affectionately smacks a grave untouched by weeds and vine.

At Evergreen, Davis launched a kind of test project with John Mitchell's tomb. It was overgrown with weeds, so Davis devised an attack.

"That's the first thing you do with your dirt in your lawn, you sample it," she says. "Stupidity is bliss, says the Lord; research is everything. You've got to know what you're working with." Davis took 20 samples of plants, bugs and worms to the Virginia Cooperative Extension office and it provided her with an appropriate weed killer. It cleared up everything except yucca from Mitchell's tomb. "You see, I'm taking a sample now, to let them know their weed killer didn't work," she says, snapping a piece from the plot and placing it in her pocket.

Edging along a buried path that once was a cobblestone road, Davis seems to envision Evergreen in its glory. "There were beautiful walking stairs down to the road," she explains. Davis describes the trickling cascade of a memorial fountain back in place.

Climbing up the last hill on her tour, Davis falls quiet for a moment. "The way they buried their dead is the way I want to be buried," she says. " It was a celebration with a long parade stretching down the road like it went on forever."

Last week Bell met with Evergreen's Entzminger and Watkins to discuss the cemetery's future. Bell says some restructuring is in the works, possibly to "segregate the abandoned section" that is recognized as historic from the field where people still are interred. This could mean that Evergreen would become two distinct cemeteries. The new part of Evergreen would remain privately owned and the old part would become a non-profit cemetery.

It's difficult to guess what this would mean to Claude Buckwalter or Carolyn Battle, whose loved ones could be separated in death from a community that binds them. Yet the move could help establish at least part of Evergreen as a nonprofit entity, eligible for government resources.

Still the lines are difficult to draw. "If you look at it with one eye it's private," Bells says, winking one eye shut. "If you look at it with the other, it's abandoned."

Either way, Bell figures, Evergreen is important to Richmond's parks, and to a broader community. "Generations ago it was the beginning of people gathering together" to socialize and honor their dead," Bell says. Davis agrees. "Evergreen was like Hollywood. It was a place to lay our people to rest. It was also a place for recreation."

The legacy of Evergreen should be important to all Richmonders, especially blacks, Bell and Davis maintain. "We need to keep history alive and close," Davis says. Cleaning up Evergreen will help do this. And consider who is buried here, she says.

There are people like Maggie Walker and John Mitchell, founder of the Richmond Afro newspaper and the first black to run for governor in Virginia — with Walker on the ticket. The famous black lawyer Giles Jackson was disinterred from Barton Heights Cemetery and moved to Evergreen. "Oh, and I know this lady," Bell says, bending to prop up a fallen tomb. "This is Rosa Watson, a dear friend of Maggie Walker's, a powerful figure." There is also Nicole Buckhalter and Leonard Pierce.

Bell acknowledges his efforts at Evergreen could be faster. And Davis thinks hers will be. One thing is for sure, Evergreen will keep growing, says Bell. There's no use hurrying, he says. Eventually he hopes his presence there makes a difference.

"See, that tree started from a seed," he says, touching the side of an enormous sycamore. "I'm looking at [my] little effort as planting a seed." S

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