Richmond volunteers work to restore neglected African American cemeteries

The Historic Evergreen and East End cemeteries, located in Richmond’s East End, are being restored by Enrichmond, a local nonprofit. Photo by Jon Mirador

Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated restoration efforts at the Evergreen Cemetery began in 2019. Enrichmond began restoring the site in 2017.

Claire Darcy, Contributing Writer

The Historic Evergreen and East End cemeteries have faced decades of neglect and overgrowth. Thick shrubbery and large trees engulf the graves, placing two monumental African American burial sites at risk of being lost without proper restoration. 

The Enrichmond Foundation, a nonprofit organization that aims to conserve Richmond’s public spaces, recently stepped in to begin restoring these cemeteries located in the city’s East End. While they are two distinct sites, the cemeteries are connected by geographic, historic and familial ties. 

“Everybody who was interred in these two cemeteries were either part of slavery and released from slavery or part of the freedom’s first generation,” said John Sydnor, the executive director of Enrichmond. “They’re connected in that — a similar struggle, a similar heroic effort to survive.”

Enrichmond is currently operating a multimillion-dollar restoration project for the Historic Evergreen and East End cemeteries. Although currently budgeted for more than $18 million, Sydnor projects it could reach up to $30 million.

“The Enrichmond Foundation supports the people, parks and public spaces in the city of Richmond, and Evergreen and East End cemeteries are a historic African American public space,” said Genifer Ross, volunteer manager at Enrichmond. “It’s just something that as a community we knew we should be doing.”

The Enrichmond Foundation was established in 1990 by the Richmond Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities. Since then, it has separated from the city and now operates as an independent nonprofit organization that runs community-based volunteer efforts to conserve Richmond public spaces. 

Trees and underbrush have encroached upon the burial sites. Photo by Jon Mirador

Enrichmond purchased Evergreen Cemetery in 2017 from its previous owners, the Entzminger family. The foundation went through a four-week-long public process in late 2018 and early 2019 to obtain ownership of the previously unowned East End Cemetery. After acquiring ownership of both cemeteries, the foundation began the process to draft a master plan for the restoration of the sites.

“It’s overdue,” Sydnor said of the restoration plans. “It’s time to save these places.”

The plan was created by a group of family members descended from individuals buried in the cemeteries, known as the Executive Planning and Review Team, or ExPRT. The team laid out six guiding principles for the restoration project, including celebrating and honoring the African American legacy in Richmond, long-term sustainability and community stewardship.

“It had to be led by descendant family members, period,” Sydnor said. “It’s theirs, spiritually.”

 On-site restoration efforts by the Enrichmond Foundation at Evergreen Cemetery began in 2017, though the foundation is not the first to try restoring the land. In 1999, groups such as the National Park Service and Friends of Evergreen led volunteer efforts to clean up the cemetery. 

Overgrowth and years of neglect may prevent the cemeteries from being fully restored to their original state, Sydnor said. He said there was no removal of underbrush or trees in most sites for more than 50 years.

“It was completely overtaken by nature,” Sydnor said. “You can’t remove those trees or it’ll disturb burial sites. So you have to balance what needs to be removed. If the goal is to get it back to its natural state, you really can’t get there with the way nature has encroached on the property.”

As part of its restoration efforts, the Enrichmond Foundation has staff at the cemeteries on a daily basis to perform tasks such as clearing overgrowth and removing excess dirt. Sydnor estimates that since their work began, the foundation has cleared around 30 of the 60 acres of land at Evergreen. 

Volunteers are working to restore the headstones. Photo by Jon Mirador

“My job is to take all the overgrowth away from the headstones so they can be revealed to either us or descendant family members,” said James Shadoian, the operations manager for Evergreen and East End cemeteries. 

The foundation also hosts volunteer opportunities such as Saturday cleanups, in which three shifts throughout the morning and afternoon are offered for up to 20 volunteers — 10 at each cemetery — to assist in restoration efforts. 

Beyond restoration of the infrastructure and gravesites at the cemeteries, Enrichmond is working to preserve the history and tell the stories of the individuals laid to rest at the sites.

Notable African American figures such as Maggie L. Walker, John Mitchell Jr. and Dr. Sarah Garland Boyd Jones have been laid to rest in Evergreen Cemetery. Walker and Mitchell each founded a bank and served as their respective presidents — Walker being the first African American woman in the United States to do so — and were leaders in civil rights activism. Jones was the first African American woman to pass the Virginia Medical Examining Board exam. 

Evergreen Cemetery was recognized by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization as a site of memory for the organization’s Slave Route Project, which aims to open conversation about and further the understanding of slavery and the slave trade. Preserving these records has been a challenge, Sydnor said.

An arson attack on the caretaker’s house in the 1960s at Evergreen Cemetery destroyed 90% of the records, Sydnor said. In order to reconstruct these lost records, volunteer opportunities that include writing biographies, transcription of records and cemetery research are available and offered remotely

“We make sure to reach out to all ages because this volunteer opportunity is generational,” Ross said. “We want all ages … so that as they get older they also bring their children, and our hope is that it will not be lost again for that reason.”

1 Comment

  1. “The foundation went through a four-week-long public process in late 2018 and early 2019 to obtain ownership of the previously unowned East End Cemetery.” If placing a notice in the Style Weekly classifieds constitutes a “public process,” then this may be considered accurate. However, the story of Enrichmond’s acquisition of both East End and Evergreen is far more complex, as is the story of its stewardship of these sites.

    I am one of the Friends of East End Cemetery, the nonprofit that emerged from the group of volunteers who set to work reclaiming East End in summer 2013. Until Enrichmond put a stop to our on-site work in May 2020, we had led a vibrant, multiracial effort to reclaim that cemetery over a period of years. Enrichmond, meanwhile, failed to perform even the most basic maintenance over the summer, and large swaths of the cemetery became wildly overgrown once again. In September 2020, after months of neglect, Enrichmond hired commercial landscapers to weed-whack the entirety of the cemetery, destroying fragile metal grave markers in the process. For a cemetery with few extant records, such carelessness on the part of the owner is inexcusable.

    Even now, Enrichmond’s presence at East End is barely discernible. Its work is confined to a small portion of the cemetery closest to Evergreen. That section of East End was already one of the clearest, thanks to years of work by the Friends of East End and the thousands of other volunteers who worked with us.

    If the Commonwealth Times will not retract this story, and I believe you should, I hope that you will at the very least write a follow-up to correct the public record. What you’ve written here is a press release for Enrichmond, not a true accounting of a years-long struggle for justice and accountability for Richmond’s historic African American burial grounds.

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