Sign Our Petition to Protect Richmond’s Historic African American Cemeteries

East End Cemetery at dusk; 9 February 2021. Photo by Brian Palmer.

With direct support from the state of Virginia and abundant taxpayer money, Parity LLC—a company created by the executive director of the Enrichmond Foundation—acquired East End and Evergreen Cemeteries with negligible public disclosure and without substantive involvement of descendants or the citizens responsible for reclaiming large portions of those historic African American burial grounds.

Parity/Enrichmond had no cemetery management or preservation experience. It did not have the money to buy the cemeteries. And it presented no plan to save the cemeteries. State officials ignored all of this, just as they ignored objections raised by the community.  

Parity/Enrichmond still has presented no comprehensive preservation plan for the cemeteries—four years after acquiring Evergreen and two years after buying East End. Nor has it proven itself a capable steward of the cemeteries, where thousands of graves remain lost in the woods.

This petition supports the demands that descendants and other members of the Black community made in a letter to Virginia governor Ralph S. Northam on March 10. They are calling for accountability, transparency, and moratorium on the transfer of public funds to Parity/Enrichmond. So are we.

Please sign and share.

Open Letter to Governor Northam Regarding Richmond’s African American Cemeteries

This morning, descendants of people laid to rest in our city’s historic African American burial grounds, as well as members of the broader Black community, sent Governor Northam an open letter expressing their concerns about alarming developments at East End and Evergreen Cemeteries in Richmond and Henrico County.

We invite you to read the full letter, but we include an excerpt here:

The Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF) has announced that it is giving a grant of $150,000—in taxpayer money—to Parity LLC (aka Enrichmond) to acquire land that is adjacent to Evergreen and East End. The process by which Parity came to own those sacred sites was not transparent, and its stewardship of the cemeteries, as we have stated, has been deeply problematic.

Enrichmond is now negotiating special-access agreements for Colored Paupers Cemetery and a portion of Oakwood, both of which are owned by the City of Richmond. We ask that you halt this process as well as the transfer of public funds to Enrichmond/Parity until these vital steps are taken:

• A proper cultural landscape report for all the cemeteries in question is produced and reviewed by the relevant authorities.
• The Commonwealth provides all due diligence and other material upon which it has based its decision to subsidize and support Enrichmond/Parity’s acquisition of African American burial grounds.
• Public meetings are convened to allow the community to deliberate on the future of these sacred sites with all of the necessary information in hand.

Finally, we ask that we be integrated into ongoing discussions, planning, and activities related to sacred sites in which our ancestors have been laid to rest based on the nationally recognized rubric of best practices, “Engaging Descendant Communities in the Interpretation of Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites,” created by the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund and James Madison’s Montpelier.

We would like to work with your administration to review these practices and then determine how they might be applied to the burial grounds here in Richmond. Fundamentally, we seek a direct and inclusive engagement with your administration and local authorities regarding these burial grounds. We would like to work with you to create robust and varied methods to open durable lines of communication and resolve ongoing tensions; improve transparency regarding African American burial grounds; inform and include the descendant community in planning and decision-making for our ancestral sites; and develop best practices for the reclamation and preservation of these burial grounds. We would also like to discuss the reinterment and memorialization of the remains found at East End Cemetery.

East End Cemetery, 7 February 2021; photo by Brian Palmer

East End Cemetery Descendants in Conversation

Moderated by Alicia K. Aroche, multimedia artist and storyteller whose work focuses on community engagement, racial justice, and healing 

This virtual event brings together students, faculty, and community members to explore the history of East End Cemetery, honor the people laid to rest there, and contribute to a shared vision of its future. We will hear from two East End descendants—Thomas Taylor and Alice Wooldridge—in a conversation moderated by Alicia Aroche, also an East End descendant and an international faculty affiliate with the Center on Digital Storytelling and Oral History at Concordia University in Montréal.

A Q&A will follow. 

The conversation will be held on Zoom and will be open to the public. Registration is required through this form; a Zoom link will be sent to you after registering. An outdoor, in-person event that builds on the themes that emerge in this discussion is being planned for April, in collaboration with Oakwood Arts

Background:  

Founded in 1897, East End Cemetery is a historic African American burial ground in Henrico County and the city of Richmond. It is the final resting place of upwards of 15,000 people, some of whom were born enslaved; many more were born in the decades following the Civil War, as African Americans built lives for themselves in freedom shadowed by segregation and white supremacy. 

As with other Black burial grounds of the period, plots at East End were maintained primarily by families. However, the weight of Jim Crow’s racially discriminatory policies, the lack of public investment, and the displacement of many African American communities took a heavy toll on the cemetery. By the 1970s, it was almost completely overgrown, plagued by vandalism and illegal dumping. 

In 2013, volunteers launched an effort to restore East End and by early 2020 had cleared most of the 16-acre cemetery. UR and VCU students and faculty worked alongside the Friends of East End for many of those years, recovering and documenting thousands of grave markers that span generations. 

Now, though, East End Cemetery has a new owner whose priorities are at odds with those of the longtime stewards. Can these competing visions be reconciled for the good of the cemetery? Can we create a space where all voices can be heard? 

End of an Era

It is with great sadness that we announce the suspension of our on-site reclamation work at East End. Many of you have volunteered with us over the years, helping to clear nearly 10 acres of the once-overgrown cemetery. Since work began in July 2013, we have uncovered more than 3,300 grave markers, hauled countless tons of brush and illegally dumped trash, learned a whole lot of history, and made many friends along the way. 

Dusk at East End Cemetery, 10 November 2020. Photo by Brian Palmer.

You are likely aware of our fraught relationship with the Enrichmond Foundation, which acquired East End in spring 2019. Enrichmond continues to claim that we refused its offers of partnership. No such offers were ever made. Instead, Enrichmond presented us with an acquisitive and profoundly unfair volunteer agreement in May. We retained legal counsel, made counterproposals, and offered concessions. If we conceded more, we would be completely subservient to an organization that has proven itself to be an irresponsible and opportunistic steward of the cemetery.

Regardless, we will continue our other work with our friends and partners, people who share our commitment to painting a fuller, truer picture of Richmond’s complex past. A digital archive devoted to East End is now available online — more on this soon — and we will resume our oral history project once Covid subsides. We will also continue pitching in at other historic African American cemeteries that volunteers are reclaiming from nature and neglect.

We are deeply grateful for the many ways you’ve supported our work over the years, and we hope you’ll keep following us online. We may not be pulling vines at East End, but that doesn’t mean we’ve turned our backs on the cemetery. We’ll still share stories and photographs. And, of course, we’ll continue to visit East End regularly, both to conduct genealogical research and to spend time at this hallowed site that has become so important to all of us.

If you would like to join us in pressing for oversight of Enrichmond’s activities at East End and Evergreen, as well as accountability for the taxpayer money spent there, please contact the elected and appointed officials listed below. And please don’t hesitate to email (friendsofeastend@gmail.com) or DM us if you have questions. 

Sincerely,
The Friends of East End

Local
• The Reverend Tyrone Nelson, Henrico County Supervisor–Varina (location of East End Cemetery)
varina@henrico.us; Pastor@smzbc.org
(804) 501-4208
Board of Supervisors
P. O. Box 90775
Henrico, VA 23273-0775

• John Vithoulkas, Henrico County Manager
vit@henrico.us
(804) 501-4206

• Cari Tretina, Henrico County Chief of Staff
tre08@henrico.us

Board of Supervisors
P. O. Box 90775
Henrico, VA 23273-0775

• Levar Stoney, Mayor of Richmond
levar.stoney@richmondgov.com
(804) 646-7970
Mayor’s Office
900 E. Broad St., Suite 201
Richmond, VA 23219

• Cynthia Newbille, Councilmember, Richmond City Council, East End 7th Voter District
Cynthia.Newbille@richmondgov.com
(804) 646-3012
900 E. Broad St., Suite 305
Richmond, VA 23219

State
• Brett Glymph, Executive Director, Virginia Outdoors Foundation
bglymph@vofonline.org; brett@vof.org
(540) 347-7727
Virginia Outdoors Foundation
39 Garrett St., Suite 200
Warrenton, VA 20186

• Julie Langan, Director, Virginia Dept. of Historic Resources/State Historic Preservation Officer
julie.langan@dhr.virginia.gov
(804) 482-6087
Virginia Department of Historic Resources
2801 Kensington Avenue
Richmond, VA 23221

• Jennifer McClellan, state senator
district09@senate.virginia.gov
(804) 698-7509
District Office
P. O. Box 396
Richmond, VA 23218

• Delores McQuinn, state delegate
deldmcquinn@house.virginia.gov
(804) 698-1070
District Office
P.O. Box 406
Richmond, VA 23218

• Joe Morrissey, state senator
district16@senate.virginia.gov
(804) 737-1626
District Office
701 German School Road
Richmond, VA 23225

• Ralph Northam, governor
ralph.northam@governor.virginia.gov
804-786-2211
P.O. Box 1475
Richmond, VA 23218

Federal
• A. Donald McEachin, US congressman
rep.mceachin@mail.house.gov
Blair.Wriston@mail.house.gov
202-225-6365
314 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

• Tim Kaine, US senator
http://www.kaine.senate.gov/contact
(202) 224-4024
231 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510

• Mark Warner, US senator
https://www.warner.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/contactpage
(202) 224-2023
703 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

Presenting Part II of the East End Oral History Project

We had the great pleasure of speaking with Alice N. Wooldridge in her Henrico Co. home in March. She talks about moving from Charles City to the big city, about cross burnings and colorism, and most of all about her family, including her uncle Edgar, a WWI veteran, and her great-grandmother, Alice A. (Wood) Wooldridge, her namesake, both of whom are buried at East End Cemetery.

Click here to watch the first installment of the East End Oral History Project, an extended interview with Thomas A. Taylor, who has been tending his family plot for decades.

New Digital Map Expands Access to East End Cemetery

Logo designed for the East End Cemetery Collaboratory by Leslie Steiger.

Years in the making, a searchable map of East End Cemetery is now accessible online. The map, which features drone-captured imagery, is the first digital initiative of the East End Cemetery Collaboratory, a learning community comprising faculty and staff from the University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University and members of the Friends of East End. 

When cemetery reclamation began in summer 2013, nearly all of the gravestones had been swallowed by dense vegetation, and burial records were nowhere to be found. Over the years, we have met many descendants searching for loved ones’ graves and helped them locate their plots whenever possible. Some family members remember visiting the graves as children in the 1950s and ’60s. As overgrowth closed in and roads through the cemetery became impassable, they could no longer find their way to them. 

In the past seven years, volunteers have uncovered and documented upwards of 3,200 markers at East End, posting photographs, basic biographical information, and GPS coordinates on FindAGrave.com. Until now, however, there was no easy way to locate specific graves at the cemetery.

That’s where the East End Cemetery Collaboratory comes in. Formally organized in 2017, the Collaboratory emerged from a multidisciplinary group of UR and VCU faculty who created educational projects at the cemetery for their classes and worked side by side with their students on volunteer cleanup days. Students increased the number of GPS points collected each year, and the addition of drone imagery in 2019 dramatically improved the accuracy of the map. Using a GIS app for phones and tablets, it’s now possible to pinpoint the exact position of grave markers at the cemetery. A new hillshade feature highlights depressions identified from small changes in elevation across the cemetery, providing a more accurate estimate of the number of burials. 

While the coronavirus pandemic has slowed East End reclamation efforts, Collaboratory members continue to refine the position of points on the map. We are also hard at work on a comprehensive digital archive centered on the cemetery. It already contains thousands of records for people interred at East End, as well as gravestone analyses, photographs, newspaper articles, and other documents. A beta release is expected by the end of June; a full release by the start of the 2020–21 school year. 

Both the map and the archive mark major steps forward in the documentation of East End Cemetery and the reclamation of its rich history, a vital chapter in the larger story of Richmond and the Commonwealth. Each will be updated as restoration and research continue and additional markers and records are found. 

The digital infrastructure for the map was built by Rob Nelson and Justin Madron/UR Digital Scholarship Lab, Stephanie Spera/UR Department of Geography and the Environment, and Beth Zizzamia and Taylor Holden/UR Spatial Analysis Lab. Data was collected by John Shuck and Erin Hollaway Palmer/Friends of East End, Kristine Grayson and Elizabeth Baughan/University of Richmond, and hundreds of students and volunteers across departments and institutions. Support for the Collaboratory is provided by UR’s Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, VCU’s Center for Community Engagement and Impact, and the UR School of Arts & Sciences Contested Spaces theme year.

East End Veterans Report Updated

World War II veteran Rudolph Henry Carey’s headstone at East End Cemetery, 22 December 2018. Photo by Brian Palmer.

Just in time for Memorial Day, we’ve updated our East End Veterans Report, now available for download here (give it a minute — it’s a big file). We undertook this survey in 2018 to provide information and photographs that could form the basis of an effort to repair, clean, and (re)set veterans’ headstones and markers, particularly those approved by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and its precursor. (Research has revealed several veterans buried at East End who have no headstone at all, only temporary “courtesy” markers. We believe that they meet the eligibility requirements to receive Veterans Affairs stones.) 

As of this writing, research conducted by the Friends of East End and others shows that at least 120 veterans are buried at the cemetery, including men who served in the Civil War, the Spanish–American War, World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam. Markers have been found for all but nine of these. However, because several acres of the cemetery remain covered in dense overgrowth, we can say with near certainty that there are more veterans interred at East End. We will keep searching for them.

FOEE_Victory_Post_20190925

WE WON!!! Thanks to you and your votes, we are among the 40 recipients nationwide of a State Farm Neighborhood Assist grant. That’s $25,000 for our oral history project, which we’ll be launching ASAP. If we haven’t said it before, we’ll say it now: Y’all are the best! We asked for your support (about a thousand times) and you delivered. We hope you’ll celebrate with us on November 2 at East End — details to come. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we have more jumping up and down to do….