As the Enrichmond Foundation closes down, the city of Richmond could soon assume control of the two historic African American cemeteries it owns. But approximately $3 million the foundation was managing for nearly 100 local community groups remains unaccounted for.
The groups and local leaders are still seeking answers three months after the foundation’s board of directors voted to dissolve the nonprofit. Enrichmond officials and representatives have not given an explicit reason for why the foundation is ending its operations, but local groups that relied on it as their fiscal agent and now can’t access their funds are questioning whether it became insolvent.
The situation has also alarmed advocates and volunteers who have been working to restore and preserve the Evergreen and East End cemeteries, which Enrichmond purchased several years ago with the same goal in mind.
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“It’s pretty horrific what they’ve done, and there’s no accountability. There’s no transparency,” said Kelley Davis, steward of the Humphrey Calder Community Garden and spokesperson for the newly formed Enrichmond Accountability Project, a collective of about 20 community groups that were working with Enrichmond.
Lawyer Andrew P. Sherrod said his firm, Hirschler, is representing the foundation but declined to discuss the matter.
In a letter to Mayor Levar Stoney and the Richmond City Council on Thursday, a group that includes Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, former state lawmaker Viola Baskerville and other community advocates raised concerns about the future of the cemeteries and urged the city to take ownership of them.
“The national and international significance of these burial grounds demand City stewardship,” the officials and advocates said in their letter. “The City has a Cemeteries Department, and these two cemeteries are the only ones not under the City’s stewardship. This sends the wrong message.”
Under the charter for the Enrichmond Foundation, according to the letter, the nonprofit’s assets are supposed to go to the city upon its dissolution.
A spokesman for the city administration sent a statement Thursday saying it is still reviewing “any obligations Enrichmond had to the city” but has yet to reach a conclusion about next steps. The statement acknowledges that the foundation’s charter has “an avenue” to transfer property to the city but that “no action has been taken toward that end.”
“Should the City obtain ownership of any East End properties through Enrichmond’s dissolution, we would value the input of our invested community members,” the statement says.
“The City will continue to work with Enrichmond legal representation and friends groups to find every opportunity to provide for support where appropriate as the transition of programs and services is an ongoing effort,” it continued.
Founded in 1990, the Enrichmond Foundation has been an umbrella for dozens of community volunteer groups involved in the stewardship and management of parks and public spaces. The foundation’s board of directors voted in late June to close down. Kerry Brian Hutcherson, a lawyer who was representing them at the time, said in a letter to its community partners that the decision was made “in the best interest of the foundation and its charitable mission.”
One of the foundation’s main projects in recent years has been the acquisition and development of a master plan for the Evergreen and East End cemeteries, which it purchased in 2017 and 2019, respectively, with the support of a $400,000 grant from the Virginia Outdoors Foundation.
Evergreen, founded in the late 19th century, is the resting place of Maggie L. Walker, the first African American woman to charter a bank in the United States; 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.
In 2019, the United Nations recognized Evergreen as a “site of memory” as part of its UNESCO Slave Route Project.
Experts estimate that tens of thousands of people are buried there and at the adjoining East End Cemetery, both of which were meant for people who were not welcome in whites-only spaces.
State lawmakers several years ago sought to allocate public funding to help restore historic Black cemeteries like Evergreen and East End that have struggled to maintain their grounds due to a lack of perpetual care funds and the gradual loss of families whose relatives are buried there.
While Evergreen and East End were considered test cases for those funds in the state capital, Enrichmond became embroiled in several controversies and philosophical arguments with leaders of a deeply involved volunteer group displeased with its stewardship and plans for the grounds.
Those issues led the city last year to withdraw an annual $75,000 contribution to the foundation in the city’s general fund budget.
The foundation’s longtime executive director, John Sydnor, left the organization this spring, two months before the board of directors voted to dissolve.
U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin, D-4th, sent a letter to the Enrichmond board of directors earlier this month saying he’s concerned about the cemeteries and the community groups that are now worried about whether they can pay their bills or continue operations.
“It is critical that those who entrusted Enrichmond with donations and relied on the Foundation for distribution of these funds be provided with adequate information regarding the availability of these funds as well as a full accounting of funds entrusted to Enrichmond,” McEachin said.
His letter went on to say the foundation must figure out a path for the preservation of the cemeteries.
“These properties, hosting memorials for many of Richmond’s notable historical residents and unfortunately neglected for so long, are among the most significant cultural assets associated with the City,” he said. “In the Historic Evergreen Cemetery Master Plan, Enrichmond committed to a vision ‘to inspire present and future generations to honor the nation’s African American cultural, historical, and spiritual inheritance.’”
“Plans must be put in place to ensure that this vision is followed through on and that these historic areas are protected,” he added.
Davis, the spokesperson for the Enrichmond Accountability Project, said the community garden had about $3,000 in its account with Enrichmond before the foundation voted to fold this summer. Before that happened, she spent about $1,800 of her own money on her organization’s expenses and expected it would be reimbursed. But she hasn’t been able to access the funds from the account that Enrichmond was managing.
While those expenses have since been covered by donations to her group, other organizations say they’ve lost even larger sums and no longer have institutional support.
Davis said a few groups have sought to file criminal complaints. A spokesperson for the police department said Thursday that it is not aware of any reports and that no investigations have been opened.
Penn Markham, president of Friends of Pump House, a local community group trying to restore the more-than-a-century-old hydroelectric facility on the James River near Byrd Park, said the group can’t access $30,000 it has raised to restore the building.
He said the group was about to spend half of that money on replacing windows at the pump house but had to suspend work at the last minute because they couldn’t access their funds. Markham said his organization also can’t access the property or hold fundraising events there anymore, as Enrichmond was responsible for procuring insurance for his group.
He said officials from the city’s parks and recreation department have offered to provide support, but they haven’t been able to get more information from Enrichmond. “It’s really put a dent in the operational aspect,” he said. “It’s possible that the money is in an account somewhere. But who knows?”
John Mitchell — a descendant of the civil right activist buried in Evergreen who had been an Enrichmond ambassador to the local descendant community — recently joined the foundation’s board of director in July to help form a plan for the transfer and preservation of the cemeteries.
In an interview Thursday, Mitchell said he’s not sure of what happened to the money either but that the foundation is trying to figure out how to move forward. “The intention is to make everything right, but I have no details,” he said. “I wasn’t on the board when all the trouble with the finances started.”
Mitchell said it’s also unclear who is leading the board at this stage, as the term of the last president, J. David Young, ended in June. Young did not respond to an email sent Thursday to an account for his job at the nonprofit FRIENDS Association for Children.
Mitchell said he feels that the preservation of the cemeteries is particularly important and is still coordinating volunteer groups to cut back brush and maintain the grounds. He said he is confident a new plan for its care will be formed soon.
“We’ve determined that we won’t let African American cemeteries become forests again, whether it’s the city or another entity that takes over its maintenance,” he said. “It won’t happen again.”
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