Saturday, September 21, 2019

Lost Richmond Historic African American Cemetery Needs Respect

The recent discovery of what are believed to be the remains of enslaved African Americans on the grounds of the University of Richmond is an important event for all Richmonders. For descendants, it can mean the memorialization of family members whose resting places were long hidden. For historians, the burials near the campus lake can help fill in the antebellum history of this part of Henrico County and the culturally important Westham area.

Finding the lost cemetery is especially important to the school, which has been suddenly presented an excellent opportunity to expand the their multicultural appeal. Once research is completed on the site, the University of Richmond plans an extensive program: a memorial to be ready by 2020, to be followed by a program of outreach to “…connect with the descendant community and support ongoing work to integrate historical context into [the] campus…” The possibility of slaves buried on the campus and interpretation of this burying ground has obviously become a major incentive for the University, judging by some of the senior administrators who were named to develop this new-found facet of the school’s history.

The historic African American Sons and Daughters of Ham cemetery adjoining the University of Richmond campus is now completely overgrown and derelict.

The University of Richmond’s attention has been dragged to the subject of historic African American cemeteries and their response was prompt. Having first explored and now researching the cemetery on the college grounds, justice demands that UR now address a neglected and vandalized African American cemetery that adjoins the campus and that University officials have been aware of since the school’s campus was established in the far west end of Richmond more than a hundred years ago.

This marker shows the corner of the University of Richmond campus where it adjoins the Sons and Daughters of Ham cemetery.

In 1873, decades before the University of Richmond purchased its campus property, a fraternal organization called the Sons and Daughters of Ham bought an acre of land on the edge of Bandy Field on the northern edge of what is now the UR campus. The lodge house built by the Sons and Daughters of Ham on the site served the Reconstruction -era African American community where Bandy Field park is today. This fraternal group was typical of a large number of clubs and societies that were popular with blacks during Reconstruction. Occasionally, these organizations later became formal insurance companies and banks, but the majority were simply social and self-help groups, often providing for burial funds when a member died. The Sons and Daughters of Ham reserved part of the acre plot for burial of an unknown number of their members. The lodge house burned in the 1940s, and like the community it served, the Sons and Daughters of Ham itself became extinct. Information as to who was buried in the cemetery became lost.

This modern survey of the Sons and Daughters of Ham lodge and cemetery property shows its position at the point the City of Richmond, Henrico County, and the University of Richmond all meet. Note also the incursions of roads and paths into the property.

One of the few remaining headstones in the Sons and Daughters of Ham cemetery was that of Moses Bradford, whose Government-issue granite marker had the distinctive shield design only used for veterans of the Spanish-American War. Bradford, age 29, listed his occupation as “quarryman” when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in May 1898. Bradford was among the “colored” troops digging trenches in the hot tropical sun near Santiago de Cuba a few weeks later, and was felled by sunstroke. So profoundly overheated that he received a disability discharge due to debilitating headaches, Bradford left the Army in January 1899. He died in 1936 and was buried at the Sons and Daughters of Ham cemetery, where he no doubt expected his grave to be kept in good order on the grounds of the organization hall.

The now-missing tombstone for Moses Bradford. The shield device is common to all markers for veterans of the Spanish-American War.

Bradford’s tombstone stood unmolested for eighty years until some group of idiots (it would have been far too heavy for one person to move) thought it would be a good idea to steal the massive granite marker. Today Moses Bradford’s tombstone, paid for by his sacrifice, is gone and is nowhere to be found.

The cemetery at Bandy Field is now completely overgrown, but its preservation is being shepherded by the Friends of Sons and Daughters of Ham, Inc. who monitor the condition of the cemetery. They know all too well the University’s interest in the property. Twenty years ago, the parcel came under close scrutiny as the location is key in linking the UR campus to Bandy Field, which the school had negotiated to purchase to expand the campus. Only by owning the Sons and Daughters of Ham property could they have linked the campus and what is now the park. Not only did they know the acre parcel existed, they knew it was a cemetery, too.

This is the corner marker of another burial plot in the Sons and Daughters of Ham cemetery, now in dense woods. The metal pipes that once formed a low fence that marked the graves are missing.

It is only fitting that the students of the University of Richmond be made cognizant of the importance of this cemetery and the history of the adjoining Bandy Field. A small investment of time and money would transform this site, and make it a valuable asset of the increasingly popular Bandy Field Park. This acre of woods, with a minimum of investment, could, like the graves down by the lake on campus, be pointed to as an effort to understand the history of the area. The Sons and Daughters of Ham cemetery could be the touchstone for any preservation program UR might develop in the future. The University taking a hand in the preservation of the Sons and Daughters cemetery would be a terrific public relations piece for the school and the cause of a lot of good press for the university.

The vandalized grave marker of another member of the Bradford family in the cemetery between Bandy Field and the University of Richmond.

The University of Richmond is hardly a stranger to cemetery preservation, and in fact is already involved with another historic African American cemetery a dozen miles away. The school, in collaboration with Virginia Commonwealth University, opened the East End Cemetery Collaboratory in 2017 to work on one of a series of historic cemeteries in the far opposite corner of the city.  “Our work has included studies of demography, ecology, gravestone symbolism, medical sociology and personal histories,” recounted one participant. The sheer area of the East End Cemetery dwarfs that of the site near the campus. A tiny amount of the money spend on such wide-ranging, high-tech research in Richmond’s East End would have turned the Sons and Daughters of Ham cemetery into an unmistakable statement of the University of Richmond’s intentions toward not only its history but that of the whole area.

The overturned tombstone of Queen V. Johnston. Her marker is decorated with classic funerary imagery: the gates of heaven swinging open. Today, this marker is lost under the accumulation of leaves and vegetation.

In a recent New York Times editorial, University of Richmond President Ronald Crutcher spoke of the school’s efforts to increase awareness of its past: “We’re enlisting a public historian to coordinate with faculty and students to help us tell a fuller, more inclusive story of who we were, are, and aspire to be. Work that includes memorializing figures such as the enslaved people who are believed to be buried on our campus and the first black alumni of Richmond’s undergraduate program.”

If that’s true, then Dr. Crutcher, please budget some money toward the preservation of the historic African American cemetery that abuts the college grounds. If UR is now so very interested in their ethnic past, let them work in concert with the Friends of Sons and Daughters of Ham, Inc. and put forward some of the school’s ample operating funds to clear the plot, and provide appropriate signage to explain the presence of the cemetery on the hill overlooking their campus. And above all, if the University of Richmond is so mindful of the importance (and fragility) of its history, then let its students be made aware vandalizing cemeteries is a serious crime. If the school can devote money and time to help restore a cemetery in the far East End, the University must surely help a site that literally touches their campus. This lack of interest by the University of Richmond might be perceived as part of a cynical plan to demean the importance of the cemetery prior to acquiring it for development. To help improve the grounds of the cemetery would dispel that accusation. 

The theft of Moses Bradford’s tombstone, issued to mark the burial place of an honorably wounded veteran, is an absolute disgrace. Funds are privately being collected by a small but dedicated group to replace it. Hopefully, the original won’t be found in pieces behind the University of Richmond’s nearby Fraternity Row. No matter who stole the marker, the growing sensitivity, nationally and locally, to the plight of historic black cemeteries is a trend that will not go away. The school needs to step up, work with the Friends of Sons and Daughters of Ham, Inc., and help fund the preservation of the Sons and Daughters of Ham cemetery. To ignore this site beside their campus while promoting their sudden interest in bodies buried down by their lake or in the far East End is the height of hypocrisy, and an exercise in deliberate neglect unworthy of the University of Richmond.

- Selden Richardson. 



rocketwerks said...

Fascinating post! Agree, this is a cemetery worth UR's time and energy.

Anonymous said...

I believe it would make sense for the black community in the area to take an active role in the clean-up and restoration of this cemetery. What better way to learn of the sacrifice of their ancestors? Better than having a bunch of privileged (mostly white) pay to have someone clean up the cemetery as they feel guilted into for the sake of PC.

Jason Sewell said...

Excellent post -- thank you. I stumbled across this cemetery while exploring Bandy Field nearly twenty years ago, and have always lamented its decay and neglect. It should be noted that the cemetery also abuts what I have been told are Civil-War-era earthworks, hastily constructed in anticipation of invading union forces along Three Chopt road. You can also see the footprint remains of nearby structures in Bandy field, including buildings and out-houses. It would be great to have some signage explaining all of these artifacts, as well as some much-needed care for the cemetery.

Kevin said...

Every cemetery is a walking museum, teaching us about the lives of those before us.

best said...