Former Governor Douglas Wilder recently unleashed “a stream of tweets,” according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, directed at the current Mayor and his administration. The complaint was the lack of maintenance of the Arthur Ashe monument on Monument Avenue, which was exhibiting some uncut grass around the base. Wilder has reason to be indignant, especially since he was among those who promoted a statue to Ashe, which after much debate was finally erected in 1996.
It is a shame the same degree of indignation regarding the condition of Richmond’s Evergreen Cemetery has not caught Wilder’s attention and his tweet stream. In those quiet woods, in graves disappearing below a sea of English ivy and kudzu, are buried many other real heroes of African American history.
Admittedly, the public monument to Ashe in the middle of Richmond’s grand boulevard, and the hidden, derelict, and privately owned cemetery are two very different places. Nevertheless, they are equally worthy of respect and preservation. The fallen tombstones and thousands of nameless graves of Evergreen are especially poignant in their expectation of permanence and the subsequent abandon of their decay.
Evergreen Cemetery was established in 1891. It was one of many new institutions established by the Reconstruction-era blacks of Richmond to achieve parity with white society. They demanded new institutions and businesses that, even in Jim Crow Richmond, stood equally as grand and substantial. Evergreen Cemetery was the African American response to the manicured lawns of Hollywood Cemetery. Like Hollywood’s dramatic setting on the bank of the James, so Evergreen would have once stood looking down Fulton Valley. At the top of the hill an, oversize granite cross marks the plot where Maggie Walker and her family were buried. Mrs. Walker was a beacon of self-reliance and financial independence at the crest of that hill as surely as she had been on the front porch of her Leigh Street home.
|The overgrown and neglected grave of Maggie Walker. This was once a visual focal point of Evergreen Cemetery but now is threatened by the surrounding forest.|
Across from Maggie Walker’s grave is a monument of a figure clinging to a large cross. This is the last resting place of Rebecca Mitchell, mother of Richmond’s famous “fighting editor,” John Mitchell, Jr. When Mitchell himself died, his biographer noted his grave was marked by a “cheap, flat stone,” which subsequently disappeared. The Shockoe Observer was there when volunteers from the Black History Museum and Cultural Center funded and installed a replacement marker ..
|The burial place of John Mitchell, Jr. and his family,as it appeared when the new grave marker was installed in 2012.|
|The Mitchell marker and grave site is now overgrown - in only just a few years.|
Now, unfortunately, the cemetery had again been allowed to go to seed and conditions are worse than ever. The new Mitchell marker is already subsiding into a green jungle of undergrowth, while weeds choke the nearby graves of Maggie Walker and her family.
Evergreen Cemetery’s only mausoleum, the Braxton family crypt, shows where the door has been breached, coffins pulled out and bodies removed. Note the upturned human skull in one photo. Since this was taken, the skull has been stolen.
A vandalized mausoleum, which has been allowed to hang open for years, displays the pulled-out coffins. One open coffin displayed a skull and leg bones, but now these have been stolen. This grisly scene has to be unheard of in a modern American city. To respectfully dispose of the bodies of the dead is among the most basic definitions of human society, and even the crudest and least civilized peoples manage to protect the bones of their citizens. But not Richmond.
|A Koren vet's tombstone is almost overgrown.|
All around the vandalized mausoleum, all over the hillsides, the elaborate tombstones with their heartfelt sentiments, the government-issue markers of veterans and the tiny marble sleeping lambs indicating the grave of a child, the rich and the poor alike are all submerging into the ivy, to be lost forever.
Perhaps even worse, the “modern” section of Evergreen Cemetery is being allowed to grow up in the same scrub oaks and vines that cover the older section. This large open area, twice the length of a football field, has been filled systematically with graves from the far end. About 90% of these graves are unmarked. The remaining area where the most recent burials are taking place in a patchwork of bare red clay, broken glass, knee-height grass, and blowing bits of plastic flowers and styrofoam.
What might be termed the “modern” section of Evergreen looks like a third-world killing ground, a place made for trenches full of bodies and tires burning in the road. Nevertheless, money is being made on both the sale of a plot at Evergreen and a fee for “opening” and “closing” a grave with a decrepit backhoe. There is a separate fee if you want to install a marker to preserve the location of a grave in that sea of scrubby grass and red clay.
Mr. Wilder, who grew up in North Church Hill only a mile or so away, probably knows Evergreen Cemetery very well and may have accompanied some elderly family members through those gates. No doubt he knows it is the last resting place of Maggie Walker and John Mitchell, Jr., both giants in the cause that he benefited from when he became governor and then mayor of this same city that tolerates the ruin of Evergreen Cemetery.
With the amount of outrage Mr. Wilder showed at the poor maintenance he observed at the Ashe statue, it’s amazing he can restrain himself from demanding attention to Evergreen Cemetery. We call on him to use his influence, his position of leadership, and his sense of justice, and yes, his tweets, to help preserve historic African American heritage sites like Evergreen Cemetery.
More recent views of the cemetery: