Descendants of people buried in two historic Black cemeteries in the Richmond area are demanding more accountability from local and state officials and the foundation that owns the burial grounds.
As discourse over the stewardship of the Evergreen and East End cemeteries continues, city officials recently decided to withdraw a $75,000 annual contribution to the foundation in next year’s budget while counseling a collective of descendants to resolve their differences with the Enrichmond Foundation through a professional mediator.
Foundation officials say they are working on plans to preserve and interpret the history of the two cemeteries with input from descendants, but about 40 people whose ancestors are buried there say the condition of the cemeteries worsened last year after the foundation alienated volunteers and relatives who had been caring for them.
John Sydnor, executive director of the Enrichmond Foundation, said he is trying to involve all descendants, but that there’s been friction with members of a newly formed independent group of relatives. The Descendants Council, the new group, recently raised concerns about Enrichmond’s stewardship of the cemeteries in a letter to Gov. Ralph Northam and in an online petition that has garnered more than 12,300 signatures.
Sydnor said organizers of the new group have refused to work with Enrichmond, but Brian Palmer, a member of the Descendants Council, said it is the foundation that has dismissed him and others with ancestors buried at the cemeteries, resorting to ad hominem attacks to deflect the concerns they have raised about its stewardship.
The latest salvos come several years into publicly supported efforts to reclaim and preserve the two burial grounds. State authorities who historically have neglected them while routinely allocating public dollars to a nearby Confederate burial ground are trying to help preserve Evergreen and East End, but their backing of Enrichmond for that mission has elicited escalating tension amid a broader push for racial justice.
“There’s a great deal of inequity from the start of this whole process to where we are, and we’re just trying to have accountability and perpetual care,” said J. Ron Fleming, a member of the newly formed descendants group whose father, grandmother and other relatives are buried in East End. “As things stand right now, I don’t feel that that is in place.”
The letter, which is cited in the petition, asks the state to withhold all public funding for the foundation until a new cultural landscape report and open community meetings about the future of the cemeteries are completed.
The letter also asks state officials to produce records that show how they determined that Enrichmond, a nonprofit created in 1990 to support the Richmond parks department and local interest groups, should receive support in its acquisition of the Evergreen and East End cemeteries in 2017 and 2019.
In response, Enrichmond has produced an 11-minute video that features its leaders and associates with relatives buried in the cemeteries disputing many of the claims and allegations made in the letter and the petition.
The Enrichmond officials in the video respond to complaints Palmer and others have raised about engagement with descendants, the associated LLC that owns the sites and tentative plans that some descendants feel would inappropriately turn sacred space into a recreational park.
The Evergreen and East End cemeteries, located in a wooded area off Nine Mile Road, are adjacent to a virtually invisible “paupers” cemetery and the city-owned Oakwood Cemetery that includes a large section of Confederate graves. Oakwood, unlike the other cemeteries, is still used for new burials.
Evergreen, founded in the late 19th century and recognized by the United Nations as “a site of memory” in the UNESCO Slave Route Project, is the resting place of Maggie L. Walker, the first African American woman to charter a bank in the U.S.; John Mitchell, the crusading editor and publisher of the Richmond Planet; and Dr. Richard F. Tancil, who rose from enslavement to become a successful doctor and founder of the Nickel Savings Bank, among thousands of others.
Both Evergreen and East End, however, have deteriorated in recent decades as the property owner and relatives of people buried there struggled to keep up with maintenance. Various volunteers and groups, such as Veronica Davis and Virginia Roots, the Friends of East End and the Evergreen Restoration Foundation, have worked to restore and maintain the cemeteries.
After years of working with volunteer groups, Enrichmond, through its LLC, purchased Evergreen and East End for $140,000 and $35,000, respectively, according to property records.
The recent efforts led to Enrichmond’s purchase of Evergreen Cemetery. The Virginia Outdoors Foundation, a conservation land trust, allocated $400,000 in 2016 to protect the property as a cemetery in perpetuity. The outdoors foundation gave the money to Enrichmond after it acquired Evergreen.
Enrichmond last year revealed a $19 million master plan for Evergreen that includes a new $2 million visitor center and the creation of a historic cemetery district to help preservation efforts for all of the cemeteries in the area. The plan was created with input from an advisory committee that included several descendants.
The Virginia Outdoors Foundation, which is supported by the state, announced in February that it would allocate an additional $150,000 to support Enrichmond’s plans as it prepares to buy 2 more acres as part of its vision for the area.
Palmer, who was also involved with the volunteer-run Friends of East End, said he feels state officials have carelessly entrusted with Enrichmond a project it is unqualified to handle, and that its stewardship thus far has been disappointing.
The relationship between Friends of East End and Enrichmond became worse last year after Enrichmond asked volunteer groups to sign special agreements to continue their cleanup efforts and research on the burials there. Palmer said the Friends of East End was reluctant to sign the agreement as it included clauses that would waive their rights to photos and other records they create from the site.
In addition to the condition of the cemeteries and Enrichmond’s management of them, Palmer and others said they were deeply disturbed when Sydnor and state officials last fall revealed in a virtual public meeting that exposed human remains discovered near East End cemetery in the summer showed evidence of “postmortem cutting.”
The descendants who attended the meeting said they felt that they mishandled the disclosure in the online forum and disrespectfully enforced a three-minute time limit on people who signed up to speak.
Some of the Friends of East End members, including Palmer, who has ancestors buried in East End, formed the new Descendants Council earlier this year. The group, which is comprised of about 40 people, said they banded earlier this year out of frustration with Enrichmond. The letter it sent to the governor, which was also shared with city leaders, raised many of the same concerns the Friends of East End had brought forward last year.
Enrichmond has sought to hash out a resolution with the Friends of East End through mediation, but has not proposed it with the new Descendants Council. In an interview, Palmer said the Descendants Council would be open to mediation only if it is public.
“We’ve been delivered to this point by a closed-door process,” he said. “Really, it’s not so much about the owner of the property, but it’s about our elected officials who continue to refuse to take accountability” for oversight of Enrichmond’s management of the cemeteries.
Said Palmer: “The end goal for me would be a positive vision for this place, led by descendants and through a democratic process.”
State officials have not committed to any of the council’s requests thus far, but the group spurred the city administration to reconsider its relationship with Enrichmond. In addition to pulling $75,000 in annual funding for the foundation, the city is no longer planning to work with it on a stream restoration project near the cemeteries intended to prevent soil erosion from encroaching on nearby graves.
“We remain in discussions with Enrichmond. ... But we have to consider the voices of other descendants in this process, and we’re going to do that,” Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said in a news conference Tuesday. “Once we feel comfortable with investing [in Enrichmond] again, we will.”
Sydnor said the move will disrupt some of the support it provides to more than 80 other community groups.
Those supporting Enrichmond, including people who also have ancestors buried at Evergreen, said they feel the city’s decision is shortsighted, and that the requests of the new Descendants Council are a distraction from the goal of saving the cemeteries.
Viola Baskerville, a Virginia Outdoors Foundation board member, former Richmond councilwoman and state delegate who also has ancestors buried in the cemeteries, said the state started to support Enrichmond only after it had made arrangements to buy Evergreen from its previous owner. “[Enrichmond] gained their trust,” she said.
Del. Delores McQuinn, who has advocated for the state to be more involved in preserving and restoring historic African cemeteries, disagreed with Stoney’s decision. McQuinn said she feels progress has been made at Evergreen and East End, but acknowledged that more work is needed.
“I think what we need to do is to continue what we are doing,” she said.