Wednesday, April 25, 2012

New Grave Marker for John Mitchell, Jr., editor of the Richmond Planet, at Evergreen Cemetery.


"Well, there's one kind of favor I'll ask of you,
Well, there's one kind of favor I'll ask of you,
There's just one kind of favor I'll ask of you,
You can see that my grave is kept clean."

"See that my grave is kept clean," - Blind Lemon Jefferson, 1928.



Evergreen Cemetery, in the far northeast corner of Richmond, is one of the saddest and most desolate places in the city.  Where it once was considered the high-style African American answer to the grandeur of Hollywood Cemetery, today it is largely overgrown and desolate.  Under a thick blanket of ivy, leaves, and weeds are buried the educators, ministers, businessmen and leaders that shaped black Richmond for generations, and their families.

 
Typical scene of the elaborate grave markers in the
forest that was once the fashionable Evergreen Cemetery.

Towering oaks crowd cast iron fences and a green pall of ivy threatens to engulf thousands of graves.  A few families try to stem the tide of kudzu that covers where their family members are buried with mowers and brush axes - an admirable if endless task.  Beneath the shade of the canopy of trees that now cover most of Evergreen are the graves of some of the most important black Richmonders of the post Civil War era.

 
John Mitchell, Jr., Richmond’s “Fighting Editor” of
the city’s African American newspaper, the Richmond Planet.

Among them is John Mitchell,Jr.  Born into slavery in 1863, Mitchell grew up in Reconstruction Richmond in a time of enormous growth in black society.  A rapidly developing black middle class demanded new businesses, buildings, and other advancements to signal parity with white Richmond.  


Among these institutions that served the growing African American demographic were Mitchell’s newspaper, the Richmond Planet, as well as a bank Mitchell founded, the Mechanics Savings Bank.  He served as city alderman for Jackson Ward, and was instrumental in the construction of the First Battalion Virginia Volunteers Armory on Leigh Street. Mitchell knew if parity with white society was to be attained, new facilities such as a high-style cemetery needed to be created.

As Evergreen Cemetery was once the picturesque equivalent of Hollywood Cemetery, the Armory on Leigh Street was the social and military equal of Richmond’s several armories for whites. More than a hundred years later, the Armory and the cemetery, Mitchell and his contemporaries from the turn of the last century are finally beginning to be recognized.

When she died in 1913, Mitchell installed an elaborate memorial for his mother, Rebecca, of a robed woman embracing a cross.  On it he had added an inscription, which is not only a tribute to her memory but also a remarkable record of Mitchell’s own unyielding character:

SHE HATED DECIET AND DESPISED HYPROCRACY.  HER CHRISTIAN TRAINING AND UPRIGHT CONDUCT MADE ME ALL THAT I AM - ALL THAT I HOPED TO BE.

Consistent with that philosophy, Mitchell used the Richmond Planet as a vehicle to hold up the horror of lynchings to the public, and travelled throughout Virginia documenting violence against African Americans to investigate equalities and injustices of Jim Crow America.  Once described in the New York World as someone “who would walk into the jaws of death for his people,” Richmond’s “fighting editor” died at his home on Clay Street in 1929.

The overgrown Mitchell family plot in 2008, showing the elaborate  monument
John Mitchell, Jr. erected to the memory of his mother.  Mitchell is buried in this plot.

In contrast to an elaborate funeral procession that accompanied Mitchell’s coffin from Fifth Street Baptist Church out to Evergreen, Mitchell was buried under a “cheap, flat stone,” typical of the kind that mark so many graves at Evergreen.  Over the decades, the grave marker was either lost or deliberately destroyed, both equally possible as maintenance of the cemetery declined and vandalism was on the rise.  The nearby plot that held the remains of Mitchel’s friend and contemporary, Maggie Walker, and her family also became choked with weeds and brush, as did all of the once tidy cemetery grounds.

 In the foreground, the plot that contains the graves of Richmond’s
famous bank president and entrepreneur Maggie Walker and her family
are shown in 2010 before the cemetery cleanup.
In 2011, the shameful condition of John Mitchell, Jr.’s grave was addressed by the Black History Museum andCultural Center.  An initiative to preserve Mitchell’s burial place was a natural for the B.H.M.C.C. as the premier collector and interpreter of the African American experience in Richmond. The Museum, with the help and advice of members of the Mitchell family and aided by many concerned donors, commissioned a new marker for Mitchell’s grave – one that recognized the significance of this important figure in Virginia’s African American history. 

 The name “Mitchell” carved into the entrance of
the once overgrown family plot in Evergreen Cemetery.

At the same time, great strides in cleaning vegetation from Evergreen Cemetery have been made.  Volunteers assembled by the Evergreen Cemetery Clean Up Project’s coordinator John Shuck, have cleaned up acres of the cemetery, removing tons of debris and ivy, but a massive amount of work remains.  Among the volunteer groups working in the woods are members of Upsilon Nu Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, who performed an amazing job clearing the hilltop plots where the Mitchell and Walker families are buried.

Thanks to the many volunteers, the vegetation around the Mitchell family plot
and many others nearby has been cleaned away. Here the massive new marker
for John Mitchell, Jr. can be seen beside the grave of Rebecca Mitchell, his mother.

The massive new stone of Georgia granite was suitably inscribed and installed by Oakwood Monument Company.  It lists Mitchell’s achievements and emphasizes his role as an early leader in what would eventually termed the struggle for Civil Rights in this country.  The first new grave marker in the historic part of Evergreen Cemetery for many years finally has given this remarkable figure the recognition he so deserved.

 





Showing the draft inscription and the granite slab ready for engraving at Oakwood Monuments Co.

I

A close-up of the inscription on the new grave marker for John Mitchell, Jr.

A ceremony of unveiling the Mitchell monument took place on February 25, 2012.  Present were representatives of the Black History Museum, descendants and relatives of John Mitchell, Jr., Raymond Boone, the editor and founder of the Richmond Free Press, donors to the project, and many other proud Virginians.  The ongoing clearing of plots in Evergreen, combined with the new John Mitchell, Jr. grave marker and a recently-erected State historical marker explaining the significance of Evergreen will all serve to draw attention to this, one of Richmond’s most neglected African American heritage sites. 
  A view of a map of the cemetery laid over an image from Google Maps. 
The cleared hilltop where the Mitchell and Walker family plots are are located at the little "U" shaped area above the "X" on the image - click on the image for a larger view.  


 
 
Where before there was almost no signage identifying Evergreen, today a new historical marker honors some of the prominent African Americans who are buried in this long-neglected cemetery.





- Selden.

Read the Richmond Planet at Chronicling America.

Important work is happening in Portsmouth too - see the web site


7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing the useful images.

Nadia said...

Thanks for posting these great images. The volunteers are doing an amazing job. Congratulations to all for the work done, and the work that continues.

Ray Bonis -- Selden Richardson. said...

Nadia,

You are more than welcome - we've posted a link to your site as well.

- Ray

scott davidson said...

How about this for a design for a wall painting, in the tried-and-true Art Nouveau style?: http://EN.WahooArt.com/A55A04/w.nsf/OPRA/BRUE-8BWN3L, by the famous English artist, Audrey Beardsley himself. You can also order a canvas print of the picture from wahooart.com.

najamonline4u said...

very nice post. some affordable grave markers can also be used which make the grave and tombstones look amzing

Jen said...

this website must not have been updated in quite a while. As a volunteer, I can tell you you can't even FIND some of the graves for the vines ranging from kudzu, honeysuckle, virginia creeper, poison oak and ivy, English ivy which is climbing a gazillion trees and will eventually kill them. If allowed to fall unchecked, they will destroy beautiful statuary, obelisks, headstones, and even the inexpensive flat markers as well as the concrete and pipe surrounds that demarcate family plots. Without a lot of man power, sweat equity, and lots of money, this cemetery will disappear under the overgrowth. This is a certainty. Yesterday 6/5/2014, I made my way to the only mausoleum on the property. It has been broken into, caskets pulled from their slots and from previous pix I've seen, bones were left exposed, stolen, etc. The mausoleum has the name Braxton at the top so if anyone knows of this family, they need to be made aware their relatives are exposed to the elements, eventually the caskets which are gorgeous will rot away and the people within will be ravaged by predators; animal as well as people. Hard to believe isn't it? Also the statue erected to John Mitchell Jr's mother was at one time set on fire. All efforts were made to clean it up but to this day, her face remains blackened by the soot from the fire. Such tragedy everywhere I go in there.If you'd like to donate to this cause, volunteer your time, know of families buried there who may very well be paying for perpetual care need to go see if they can even FIND their relatives final resting place and clean it up if they are able. Or pay to have it done and stop paying the owner for nothing. I truly beseech you to feel w/ your heart, take a ride out there, and then you'll truly understand. If you are not in Richmond, search for Evergreen Cemetery Richmond VA on the net and you can view pix. I warn you some are horribly gruesome. Please contact me if you want to help. Even a dollar would help us and we also need services and goods donated. The list is too long to imagine. Contact Jen at goughdavidm@gmail.com if you want to become involved in any way at all. Thanks in advance for any support we can get. Warm regards, Jen

anthony.richards17 said...

Hello from the Caribbean. Thank you for the hard work of all the volunteers (Jen) and for the gorgeous images. This is to request your permission to use the images in my academic work, talks, writings, etc. My email address is antiguachemist@yahoo.com .
We are interested in African American burials, and the traditions shared with the Caribbean and West Africa. I have a special interest in the Yucca, lilies and other plant used to mark graves. Thank you for leaving the yucca on the grave of Mtchell's mother.
The link that follows is from the government in West Virginia.
"Pushing Up Yucca"
http://www.wvculture.org/shpo/cemplants.html
"Before you begin clearing away the jungle, step back and take a good, long look at what the jungle is made of. You may find that several of the plants are meant to be there and are as much a part of the historic nature of the cemetery as the gravestones they so consummately conceal."
"The most common plants seen in cemeteries in the Appalachian region are periwinkle, vinca, yucca, cedar and other types of evergreen, holly, and lilies"