Just a little before noon yesterday, volunteers at East End Cemetery laid down their rakes and loppers, walked to the older section of the burial ground, and gathered at the Tancil family plot. They were joined by others who had come to East End specifically for the day’s event, the dedication of a new headstone for Dr. Richard Fillmore Tancil.
Erin welcomed the group, which included students from VCU’s sociology department and ASPiRE, University of Richmond biology professors, members of Chesterfield’s Church of the Latter Day Saints, representatives from the Virginia Outdoors Foundation and Enrichmond, and the Friends of East End. I told the story of the Tancil stone’s disappearance last July and tried to give people a sense of why the apparent theft struck the Friends so hard. In so many ways, Dr. Tancil exemplified the community of struggling, striving, and achieving people laid to rest at East End. Born into slavery, Dr. Tancil was educated in public schools after the Civil War. Supported by his family, he graduated from Howard University with an undergraduate degree and then an MD. He practiced medicine in Richmond, became a hospital administrator in Virginia’s segregated public health system, founded a bank, and became a civic leader. Along with other prominent black Richmonders—John Mitchell Jr., Maggie L. Walker, W. L. Taylor—Dr. Tancil publicly supported the 1904 boycott of Virginia Passenger and Power Company streetcars after Jim Crow was extended to these conveyances in Richmond, Manchester, and Petersburg. So when visitors to East End would ask us, Why does this overgrown, rundown, nearly forgotten cemetery matter? we’d take them to the Tancil plot to see the doctor’s modest stone and to tell his story.
Either paradoxically or providentially, just days after the stone disappeared last year, we met (electronically) Susan Mitchell, the wife of a great-grandson of Dr. Richard and Mary (Lane) Tancil. Susan had been searching for the Tancils’ final resting place and found information that John Shuck had entered into the FindAGrave database. On Saturday, Susan, visiting from Oregon, shared stories of the doctor’s greater legacy: love and generosity for his family and his community.
Relatives of people buried at neighboring Evergreen Cemetery as well as East End joined us toward the end of the event. We looked around at each other—white, black, Latino, Asian; the very young, college kids, and less-young folks like us. This is the community coming together to reclaim East End from neglect and vandalism—and to recover the history of the community buried there. This is Richmond.
As the Friends gathered for photos with Susan—Ava Reaves, shooting for the Richmond Free Press, got down in the dirt to take the group portrait—some folks packed up their tools and left for the day. But others lingered for minutes, then hours talking, meeting, exchanging stories and information, building a new community around a vital, common task. —Brian Palmer