Monday, June 24, 2019

The Granite Column and the Typewritten Tombstone.

For Alyson.

Richmonders have taken pride and satisfaction at the volunteer work being done in our historic African American cemeteries like Evergreen, East End, and Woodlawn.  Through the efforts of determined volunteers, graves are being uncovered, restored, and cataloged while revealing a vital facet of Richmond’s history that has been obscured under leaves and kudzu for generations. The condition of local black cemeteries has drawn national and international attention, and because of this, Richmond is becoming an important destination for African American heritage tourism and research. 

Despite the attention brought to these cemeteries, there are still Richmond graves that remain undiscovered and unmarked.  The tiny cemetery at 9550 Evansway Lane once served a long-vanished nearby Baptist church, but today is hemmed in by tri-levels.  No trace of who is in the cemetery remains. In City real estate records, the ownership of the little plot is with members of the Laurus family, who once owned much of the surrounding farmland.

9550 Evansway Lane, near Bon Air. This small cemetery, with its nameless graves, is today wedged between suburban homes. 

The woods that cover the half-acre property at 6911 Old Westham Road conceal a lost African American Richmond cemetery. Now located between commercial buildings and suburban homes, the cemetery serves as the dumping ground for the landscape debris from the McDonald’s restaurant beside it. A small creek forms the southern boundary, on the other side of which is an auto repair shop. The yard of the house next door and Old Westham Road complete the boundaries. Old Westham Road was the predecessor of today’s Cherokee Road, and connected the community of Granite to the Westham Bridge, the nearest crossing going north into Henrico County. What is now little more than a shortcut between Cherokee and Forest Hill Avenue was once part of an important north Chesterfield thoroughfare.

This 1920 map shows the path of Old Westham Road before a century of suburban development transformed the area by the 1950s. The Old Westham Road Cemetery is located just above the words “Bon Air” on this map, while today’s Stratford Hills Shopping Center is approximately where the words “J. W. Newton” are in the lower right corner.

The hamlet of Granite gave its name to the little train stop and siding where the Richmond and Danville railroad crossed the “River Road.”  The site is where today’s Forest Hill Avenue crosses the train tracks as it passes above the Powhite Parkway. Rock cliffs visible on both sides of the toll road at this point only hint at the industry here in James Netherwood’s quarries that employed the men of Granite.  Nearby, another former operation owned by Netherwood is the site of today’s Granite Recreation Association and Netherwood Road refers to his family’s holdings and influence in the neighborhood.

Originally from England, James Netherwood (1834-1899) supplied granite and supervised the construction of the stonework on some of Richmond’s premier buildings and monuments.  His company shipped stone up and down the east coast.  Old City Hall (1894) and the Masonic Temple on Broad Street (1893) were products of Netherwood’s quarries and his masons’ work.  Netherwood erected many of the bases of the statues on Monument Avenue, supervised the construction of the infamous railroad tunnel under Church Hill, and the built the huge column that is the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Libby Hill Park in 1894. His nephew, Albin Netherwood, continued the quarry business after his uncle’s death.

A map showing a portion of the Netherwood granite works. The “River Road” on the map is today’s Forest Hill Avenue, and the Richmond and Danville Railroad still intersects that street beside the Powhite Parkway and one of Netherwood’s water-filled quarries.

As a village, “Granite” was more than just a stop on the railroad that ran through the quarry operations. The workers that pulled the stone from the soil of what was then Chesterfield County lived along what is now Forest Hill Avenue, some as far west as Sheila Lane, west of Chippenham Parkway. There were a series of small, frame cottages all along this stretch of Forest Hill Avenue, of which only one remains at 6922 Forest Hill. This house appears unoccupied and overgrown, and may soon be demolished and its site become another component in the commercial area of Forest Hill. The fact the lot is assessed by the City at more than a quarter of a million dollars and the house itself as only $1000 foretells the fate of the last of the Granite workers’ housing on Forest Hill.

The last of the frame bungalows that once lined Forest Hill
Avenue and housed many of the quarry workers of the Granite community.

Edith Pride was one of the residents of Granite, and her life can best be glimpsed in ten-year snapshots by using the United States census, beginning in 1910. That year she is listed as a teenage member of the household of James Netherwood’s nephew and heir, Albin, along with Albin’s wife, five children and mother-in-law. Edith Pride was probably a young maid or kitchen help for the Netherwoods. 

By 1920, Edith Pride is listed as a “candy packer” in the census that year, probably riding in the back of a segregated streetcar every day to downtown Richmond where the city’s small candy industry was mostly located in the blocks north of Broad Street. 

By 1930, she described herself to the census taker as age thirty and a “laundress” with her place of work a “private house,” which may have again been the Netherwood home. She and her husband, Sterling were married in 1920, did not have children, and lived in one of those now-vanished homes on Forest Hill Avenue among her neighbors such as the Woolrich family, the Carringtons, and Colemans. She probably made the walk daily down “River Road” to the Netherwood home and walked back up the road in the evening with the dusty quarrymen, her neighbors.

The occupation of Pride’s husband Sterling is listed in 1930 as simply “dentist,” but this title does not do justice to his profession, training, or status.  Sterling Pride was no ordinary tooth-puller but instead appears in the Richmond City Directory as operating a “Dental Laboratory” at 327 North 1st. Street.  This was not an ordinary dental practice or location, either.  327 North 1st was in one of the (unfortunately now demolished) key Jackson Ward buildings that figure in local African American history, having been designed by Charles Russell, Richmond’s first black professional architect and where Russell had his offices.  It was also the home of the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank – one of Maggie Walker’s several engines of black enterprise and accomplishment. 

Dr. Pride’s clientele were members of Richmond’s African American society who were demanding services once thought out of reach, such as their own architects, builders and bankers. This demand was fueled by the many men and women who worked in the banks and insurance companies in Richmond’s Jackson Ward where it was said to to constitute the greatest concentration of black enterprise and talent between Washington and Atlanta.  At the same time, black businesses like John Mitchell, Jr.’s banking enterprise were moving out of the Victorian row houses of Jackson Ward and into new buildings as the neighborhood grew and flourished. The fact that Sterling Pride had an office at this address clearly signaled his was a well-trained and skilled dental practice.

A postcard ca. 1920s showing the building at 327-329 N. 1st Street that housed the offices of Charles Russell, architect, his patron Maggie Walker’s St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, and the dental laboratory of Sterling Pride.

Sterling Pride entered Central State Hospital in Petersburg in early December 1955 and died there on Christmas Eve.  Central State was then a segregated and chronically overcrowded mental hospital for “colored persons of unsound mind.”  Edith Pride died July 29, 1957, felled by a stroke that killed her within a couple of minutes, according to her death certificate.  Like many of her contemporaries in Granite, her body was taken to the Mimms Funeral Home, at 1827 Hull Street, and prepared for burial.  The Mimms establishment is still serving South Richmond African-Americans at that address as it has since 1925, and judging by the records, almost every family in Granite called on Mr. Mimms’ services when a member died.

The temporary marker for Edith Pride was supposed to only last until a permanent marker was installed. Instead, the typewritten grave marker has lasted more than 60 years.

When Edith Pride joined her husband in the Old Westham Road cemetery, it was probably clear of trees and debris and just another rural burying ground beside a shady country road.  She joined her neighbors, her relatives, and her contemporaries in graves often marked by flat, inexpensive stones held in a metal frame. A few are concrete, and some nameless graves seem to only have a piece of unhewn granite to mark them.  No doubt some had wooden markers, now long gone. The depression in the forest floor beside Edith Pride’s marker is probably the unmarked grave of her husband, Sterling.

Apparently forgotten, Edith and Sterling Pride’s graves remain without permanent markers, with her plot marked only by a piece of paper since the afternoon she was buried there in 1957. Nothing but oak leaves grace her grave, although little tributes of plastic flowers decorate many of the marked burials in the cemetery.  One grave decorated with flowers otherwise has only a little scrap of metal that was the post for one of the funeral home “courtesy markers,” indicating that even the temporary marker is long gone, but somebody, somewhere, knew and once loved whoever is in the anonymous grave.

Some friend or family member continues to bring flowers to this now anonymous grave in the woods, marked only by the broken-off upright of a temporary marker.

When James Netherwood died in 1899, he was buried in Richmond’s Oakwood Cemetery under a 20 foot tall monumental granite column of his own design.  Netherwood constructed his monument years before he was actually buried there, and it features a like-size statue of Netherwood himself on top of the column, wearing his Masonic apron and other regalia. His nephew and Edith Pride’s employer, Albin Netherwood, died in 1915, was buried in the Netherwood plot and his name was added to the base of his uncle’s statue. Today, the Netherwood monument that was designed to last a thousand years rises above the small trees of Oakwood as a tribute to Richmond’s premier nineteenth-century quarryman and stone contractor.

The Netherwood monument in Oakwood Cemetery. The statue on the top is a self-portrait of James Netherwood, wearing his ceremonial Masonic regalia.

The contrast between James Netherwood’s grave and that of Edith Pride is breathtaking.  You’d need a bulldozer and dynamite to completely erase the massive Netherwood memorial from its site in Oakwood Cemetery. In comparison, the inscription of Edith Pride’s marker was tapped out on a typewriter in a funeral home office sixty years ago.  As little as a careless footfall or a broken tree limb could drive what little is left of Edith Pride’s marker into the leaves, never to be seen again. 

A comparison between the two graves and how they are marked embodies classic Richmond contradictions of rich and poor, black and white, permanence and fragility, the past and the present. Both the neatly cut fields of Oakwood and the shaded cemetery on Old Westham Road are heavy with memory, but only in one cemetery does memory hang by such a thin thread.

Little orange flags dot the woods of the cemetery on Old Westham Road. Their purpose is unknown, but if these represent unmarked graves then quite a few people are buried in this plot.

Today, Old Westham Road Cemetery is dotted with little orange flags on wire supports. The same method of marking has been observed used in Evergreen Cemetery to show the location of otherwise unmarked graves, so perhaps someone has taken an interest in the little plot on Forest Hill. Any change of use of the property would demand the removal of the bodies – an expensive process for a site that is not hugely desirable for either commercial or residential development. 

So, for now the woods keep their secrets and the seasons continue to blanket the unmarked graves with another layer of oak leaves. With freezing and thawing, a bit more paper is lost from Edith Pride’s grave marker as it over the decades gradually disappears. Aside from her Death Certificate and the Census record, this typewritten scrap of paper is the last memory of her entire existence. As the seasons pass, it slowly returns to pulp. 

The Shockoe Examiner will keep an eye on the Old Westham Road Cemetery and report any developments.

- Selden Richardson. 


Dan Ream said...

Thanks for this great history of my neighborhood in Stratfood Hills. My son and I found the cemetery on Old Westham many years ago and it's good to know more about it, though sad it remains largely ignored. Perhaps this article will change that.

Unknown said...

Wonderful article. I plan to visit this cemetary and see what can be done to clean it up.

Emory Williams said...

I hope someone will find the striking contrasts between the burial sites of Mr Netherwood and The Pride's disturbing enough to take action and restore the Old Westham Road Cemetery to an appropriate place of respect.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this great historical

Sharon said...

Thank you so much for this very interesting history of my area of Richmond.

Mamajune said...

This is one of the most interesting articles I have read in Nextdoor. Thank you so much for bringing this to our attention.

Saved Sisterhood said...

Very Sad!!!

Unknown said...

Good article, but reference to the home at 6922 being the only one remaining on Forest Hill from that era in the area of old Granite Station is not completely accurate. There are two homes from that era still standing on Forest Hill even closer to the old station location than 6922. There's 5635 Forest Hill, which was built in 1895, and another home just east of that a few lots that's also from the pre-1920 era.

Anonymous said...

Workers who labored in granite quarries, coal mines, and on railroads lived in similar homes on Old Bon Air Road.

Derek Redwine said...

Great article! Curious if you know the history of the land on which Southampton Recreation Center now resides?

John Newman said...

I grew up in Stratford Hills starting in 1957. The cemetery described was there but in bad shape even back then. Across the street was the Jewett house, home of my father's room mate from VPI. We occasionally would visit, I do not recall the cemetery ever being discussed. Wades Citgo was on the corner and on both parcels now taken by the 711 and McDonalds. The operator was aware of the cemetery but basically ignored it existed as it was overgrown with no parking. That would be about 1965.
James Netherwood constructed his monument in Oakwood before he died. My family is also buried in Oakwood. I was told the column on which his monument sits came from the Jefferson hotel build. The artisan was Schutte who lived on Forest Hill in the Patterson Schutte house built in the early 1800s and is still standing.
Netherwood quaries were in Westover near Forest Hill Park and Riverside, Bliley Road and Netherwood Rd and the one by Granite Pool near Willow Oaks.
But I believe there were many operators at locations including Rockfalls and Chellowe Rd, Granite Hall Rd, and along Riverside Dr west of Pony Pasture. There were also mining operations in the James River.
When Stratford Hills opened for development the first three houses (including Mr Schmidts) were all constructed of granite. Ours was the fourth house and my father chose Brick.
Stratford Hills main roads are Wakefield, Stratford, and Kenmore. Adding some feeder type roads around them. Southampton is a larger development along with scores of smaller subdivisions like Granite Hall. Stratford Hills never went to Forrest Hill Ave over by Old Westham where some like name neighborhood association claim to oversee. The Stratford Hills shopping center name was borrowed by E. Carlton Wilton when developed.