This weekend the New York Times ran Brian’s opinion piece on HB1547, a bill before the Virginia Legislature to provide annual funding for the care of historic African American cemeteries. The legislation will almost certainly meet resistance in the General Assembly, which opens January 17. Lawmakers will need encouragement from concerned citizens to pass the bill. We’re asking our supporters in the state of Virginia to contact your legislators to urge them to vote for perpetual care for East End, Evergreen, and other important sites of memory.
We’ve been waiting for months to announce that John Shuck, who’s been leading the East End cleanup effort since summer 2013, won this year’s Peter H. Brink Award for Individual Achievement in Historic Preservation. Word came down from the National Trust for Historic Preservation in July, but the news was embargoed until last week’s awards ceremony, which took place in Houston. John and his wife, Debbie, traveled to Texas for the event, as did one of our long-distance supporters, who flew in from Miami.
The Brink Award “honors an individual who is not a career preservationist but who has made extraordinary contributions toward saving a historic place,” says the National Trust. In the years that John has been working to restore East End Cemetery, thousands of volunteers have waded into the overgrowth to pull ivy, lop briars, haul away fallen trees, and unearth long-buried headstones. Nearly 2,500 grave markers have been revealed, photographed, and posted on Find A Grave. Between three and four acres (out of 16) have been cleared—which might not sound like much if you haven’t been to the cemetery. But picture a dense forest, with an occasional headstone poking through the blanket of ivy, privet, and brambles. That’s what all of East End looked like three and a half years ago.
Now, in no small part thanks to John’s unflagging commitment, the cemetery has begun to reemerge as a dignified final resting place for thousands of Richmonders. Some of the people interred at East End were born into slavery; some fought in the Civil War; many others were born in the decades following Emancipation. They built families, churches, businesses, social clubs, mutual aid societies—all in the face of ever-present discrimination and, as the 20th century wore on, ever-stricter segregation. There are veterans of World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam buried at East End. There are teachers, ministers, doctors, tobacco stemmers, housekeepers, railroad workers. As we uncover their graves, we uncover some of their stories, which in turn allow us to tell a richer, truer story of Richmond.
Much work remains to be done, but John shows no signs of slowing down. Just this afternoon, 183 volunteers and five goats fanned out over East End, filling the dumpster, creating a new brush mountain along the road, and revealing many grave markers as they went along. He’ll be back out on Saturday.
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
Many of you might remember that a headstone went missing from East End last summer. It belonged to Dr. Richard F. Tancil, a remarkable man who was born into slavery circa 1852, went on to earn his MD at Howard University, and set up a medical practice in Richmond’s Church Hill neighborhood, where he also founded a bank. According to his great-granddaughter-in-law, the family archivist, he was beloved by his wife, children, and grandchildren, who remembered him as funny, generous, and kind.
Now, thanks to supporters near and far, we will be dedicating a new marker for Dr. Tancil at noon on Saturday, October 22. We hope you’ll join us!
Smithsonian magazine has handed over its Instagram account to Brian this week. He’ll be posting photographs of East End, Evergreen, and more through Friday. The images document historic yet abandoned Richmond-area cemeteries, the communities they once served, and the contemporary community that is evolving around the restoration of these places. Taken as a whole, they explore how certain aspects of our past have been diminished, discarded, and almost erased while others have been venerated, even fetishized. Keep an eye out!
We are excited to show off our brand-new logo, created by the wonderfully talented Leslie Steiger, a print and digital designer in New York with whom Erin was lucky enough to work several years back. For inspiration, we sent her images of the motifs and typefaces found on headstones in the cemetery and asked her to try to capture East End’s historic nature and its essential woodsiness. We are thrilled with the results!