Monday, August 10, 2015

The Shame of Evergreen Cemetery - What do you think?

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.

Historic Marker.

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. 

In some areas of Evergreen Cemetery, families bravely try to beat back the invincible tide of kudzu which threatens to cover the entire cemetery in an impenetrable blanket of green.  This is an ongoing process to try and stop the relentless vine from covering their loved ones.

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. 

This view is of the “modern” or money-making section of Evergreen Cemetery, where Richmonders still buy plots only to see them covered by weeds, ivy and trees.  Notice how much this section has grown up since these two images were taken, two years apart.  Most graves are marked by temporary funeral home markers, quickly lost in the rank undergrowth.

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.

- Selden. 

More recent views of the cemetery: 


Ray Bonis -- Selden Richardson. said...

I had to repost this blog entry. Here's a recent comment and Selden's response:


The Mad Giggler said...

This is very sad and yes shameful. I seem to recall a news story about a group who was trying to clean up the cemetery, but I think that was couple of years ago. Who is responsible for keeping up the cemetery? If there is no money available, perhaps a fundraiser or crowdfunding campaign could be started.
August 10, 2015 at 4:05 PM
Selden said...

There was and is a gallant volunteer group led by John Shuck, but their efforts have moved to adjacent East End Cemetery and they are working there now. Unfortunately, their good works are quickly being undone by the growth of ivy and kudzu.

As to who is responsible, there is an owner of the cemetery who is apparently under no obligation to keep it up, but continues to make money on the section I call "modern." It would cost millions to clear the undergrowth and fund perpetual care for that cemetery, which just isn't going to happen.
August 10, 2015 at 6:08 PM

Post a Comment

john m said...

Great piece, I've shared it out on CHPN

The Mad Giggler said...

Thanks for the information, Selden. Since it is obviously cost prohibitive to fund cemetery upkeep in perpetuity, the next idea would be to form a volunteer group like Shucks or expand the ranks of Shuck's group so that there are enough people to cover both cemeteries. This might be something that local church groups would be interested in helping with. Or it could be some type of student service project. Raising awareness of the need may inspire some to help. This post is a step in the right direction. I would be happy to pitch in with a volunteer group to clean up the cemetery.

Huffstutler said...

I have been trying to find a way for some time, to get the ball rolling.

There are several obstacles, mainly the current owner(s) of Evergreen – and the East End Cemetery as well. To make things right, there has to be a legal system in place. A clear chain of ownership established through certified deeds. Surveying the land (there are some disputes as to some areas of acreage ownership with Oakwood). Backers who can finance cleanups (it will take millions). Professional planners to come in and supervise. And a LOT of time as it will not happen overnight. The landscape has been left unattended far too long and so, is an even bigger challenge than if it was to have been approached 30+ years ago.

Once it is cleaned up, then what? There are no perpetual care funds in place and no government grants. The community and church have been approached many times before with little to no interest. It is a private owned cemetery covering 60 acres (another 16 acres at East End) with around 5,000 graves or more. If someone has a genuine interest in helping, please contact me.

Eric Huffstutler

Selden said...

It certainly would be useful and interesting for somebody to contact the gentleman who owns Evergreen and ask him his plans. This seems fundamental to any effort to even stabilize the situation out there.

Huffstutler said...

Isaiah Entzminger and his wife, of UK Corp., are the owners of both Evergreen and Woodland Cemeteries while Dr. Earl Gray takes responsibility for the East End Cemetery adjoining Evergreen. I know that Dr. Gray said some 30+ years ago that he was not going to spend a dime into fixing up the grounds. Entzminger on the other hand, has maintained that he would accept an offer for someone to come into Evergreen and spend their own money to restore the 5,000 graves, while also asking basically for a blank check to have funds at hand to maintain the grounds afterwards. The problem with this scenario is that the so-called "new section" in the clearing, is supposed to have perpetual funds collected but are not being used. There is a matter of trust and a bit of greed involved. A mediator is what's needed as well as someone to educate him on how things really work to accomplish such a monumental project (no pun intended).

With Jim Crow and the Northern Migration, many families moved away while younger people could care less about family heritage or respect (or old things). It is a crying shame that these individuals who were mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, young and old, poor and rich are all basically just thrown away and forgotten like yesterday's trash. Something has to be done and soon before nothing can, with the vegetation and trees reclaiming the land... which it already has to a point that even Henrico (East End side) will not even step in to enforce regulations due to "reclaiming".

We need someone with deep pockets. An African-American philanthropist who is concerned about heritage and history as there are several leaders buried there, to shake things up. I was in the midst of reaching out but was sidetracked with an immediate family member who is dealing with terminal cancer. But, I did reach out to an attorney where I work and he gave me the route to take. There have been others that made unsuccessful attempts, one recently, which may have done more damage than good with their opinionated comments that turned several important organizations sour to the idea of helping.

Selden, if you are interested in joining me on this journey or know others who may, please let me know. I think people like Doug Wilder or Dwight Jones are either clueless or lack interest as others have over the years?

If you haven't read them yet, also take a look at the CHA Newsletters for October and November 2014 in which I had written an extensive article about both cemeteries history entitled "And They Weep...A Richmond Disgrace". I believe your library has copies?

Full disclosure, I am not black but the situation at hand runs deeper than skin color. It is about morals and respect for the memory of fellow human beings.


Huffstutler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Huffstutler said...

One thing that has always disturbed me is the desecration of the Braxton Mausoleum. It was suspiciously vandalized first when the owner of the cemetery at the time, was stealing money and then foreclosed. It was broken into several times since with parts of coffins, skulls, and bones, taken for who knows what reason other than some sick f***s scoring morbid trophies. Come on people. These were living breathing human beings at one time and somebody’s loved one who now, have been lost forever due to your immaturity and selfishness. Only a broken crypt remains for family members to visit.

Huffstutler said...

BTW, it is a felony to remove human remains without a court order! Have the police or federal authorities investigate the crime? No. Will they? No. Sad but true that officials on all levels could care less about these cemeteries.

John Shuck said...

Clean up work at Evergreen Cemetery resumes on May 16, 2016 at 9 am. For more information see

Creighton_ca said...

Disgraceful. I have been working on my family genealogy for the past six months and discovered my great grandmother is buried in that cemetery. We previously had no information on her, because my grandmother became an orphan at a young age. She didn't speak of her past. My family was planning on going to the cemetery to make an offering of some sort, as we don't believe she would have a headstone. How disheartening.

Anonymous said...

How tragic. This is truly an outrage. Thanks for posting..

Anonymous said...

Lets ask these people if they'll kick in even one penny. Probably not. Greed doesnt identify with a color, other than green.