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‘AN ABSOLUTE MESS’

Williams: Enrichmond Foundation is dissolving. Its death calls for more transparency than it demonstrated in life.

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The out-of-the-blue dissolution of the Enrichmond Foundation is a distressing but otherwise fitting end for an organization that was never as transparent as it needed to be.

The foundation was established in 1990 to support the development of local parks and public spaces. But its acquisition several years ago of two historic African American cemeteries — and dissatisfaction about its stewardship and transparency among the descendants of those buried there — made it a flashpoint destined to burn everyone involved.

And so it has come to pass.

Its executive director for 11 years, John Sydnor, quietly left the nonprofit in April. Board members resigned en masse. Its website went dark. And last Tuesday, a lawyer alerted its 86 partner organizations that Enrichmond, their fiscal agent, was being shut down.

The state and fate of the monies these groups entrusted to Enrichmond remains unclear.

“My sense is it’s an absolute mess,” said Scott Morrison, treasurer of Richmond Tree Stewards.

Kerry Hutcherson, the attorney charged with unraveling the mess, said in an email Thursday: “The Enrichmond Foundation is not ready to make any comments at this time, but I expect to have a statement within the coming days.”

The dissolution, he added, “requires a substantial amount of document review and analysis, and until the Enrichmond Foundation has completed that part of the process we won’t be in a position to provide many details.”

This is a sad denouement to the hopes of 2017, when Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, secured state recognition and funding for the preservation of East End and Evergreen cemeteries, the latter the final resting place of Black Richmond luminaries Maggie L. Walker and John Mitchell Jr.

In hindsight, the beginning of the end occurred during the spring of 2021, when the administration of Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, concerned about the rancor between a descendants group and Enrichmond, withdrew $75,000 in annual funding — effectively a vote of no confidence.

But the crux of the issue was too much confidence in Enrichmond, suggests Virginia Commonwealth University historian Ryan Smith, author of “Death & Rebirth in a Southern City: Richmond’s Historic Cemeteries.”

”In hindsight, this scenario seems utterly predictable,” Smith blogged. “The Enrichmond Foundation never demonstrated that it had the capacity for the task or an ability to build trust with its partners in the work.”

But after years of butting heads with Sydnor and Enrichmond, descendant Brian Palmer was hardly celebratory about its demise.

“When an organization that people rely on folds, it’s not good news,” he said. “But it does provide an opportunity for those who remain in that organization to take a new path.

“One would hope that the board members of Enrichmond would provide clarity and transparency to partner groups, on the one hand, and descendants, on the other. This is essential to make these groups whole and to protect the cemeteries.”

The abrupt collapse of the nonprofit, coupled with its history of opacity, left folks unsure of exactly owns the cemeteries: Enrichmond or Sydnor’s limited liability corporation, the ironically named Parity LLC.

Years before James Madison’s Montpelier would establish a model of structural parity and power sharing with the descendants of the enslaved, a group of descendants of the interred at East End cemetery sought a power-sharing arrangement on an Enrichmond governance board. It never happened, and Sydnor’s relations with Palmer and other descendants was often fraught.

Sydnor is now the fundraising and communications program officer for Virginia LISC. On Thursday, as he traveled with his family, he sounded like a man ready to move on.

“I left Enrichmond for an opportunity that opened with an organization I had been monitoring for years,” he said in an email. “When I left, Enrichmond owned both East End and Evergreen. I’m not in the loop any longer on these things.”

Not so fast.

Everyone associated with Enrichmond has a lot of explaining to do. Rarely do organizations collapse so quickly without warning.

“Our public officials — elected and appointed; local, state, and federal — must also account for the hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars they have given to Enrichmond and its holding company, Parity,” Palmer said. “How has that money been spent? Is there any left? Audits have been conducted ... why not share these public records with the public, with the descendant community?

“We can’t move forward to save the cemeteries until we sort out the mess in front of us; we can’t get to reconciliation until we have the truth.”

A nadir in Enrichmond’s stewardship of the cemeteries occurred during the summer of 2020, when a cache of exposed human remains was found by an employee in an eroding ravine at East End cemetery. Imagines of the remains were shown on a local television newscast. Folks were later stunned to learn during a virtual meeting that the bones bore evidence of medical dissection.

This untimely dissolution amounts to the latest desecration of the Black dead in Richmond.

mwilliams@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6815

Twitter: @RTDMPW

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