Uncovering Forgotten African-American Graves
There is a headstone at East End Cemetery for Wendell Ellison’s grandfather, Charles G. Ford, who died in 1960, but not for his grandmother, Fannie. “She was buried on top of him,” Ellison explained. Double burying meant families didn’t need to buy a second plot. It also saved them money on maintenance, a forever responsibility at this now-defunct Richmond, Virginia cemetery.
By the time Ellison’s grandmother passed away in 1974, East End was overgrown. It had become a popular spot for garbage dumping and other illicit activities. “I remember my grandmother’s funeral,” said a sweaty Ellison, who was fourteen years old at the time, standing at the grave. “We just come out here, put her in the ground, and we left.”
But Ellison came back to East End. One torpid Sunday in June of 2016, he weed-whacked, then spread mulch on the grave. He made a rectangle around it with lengths of timber, and then spray-painted them white. Ellison has been tending his grandparents’ plot since 1982, first with his mother, and then on his own when her health started to fail. “I will go until I physically can’t do it anymore,” he said.
This was one meeting among many with descendants of the deceased that I have had in a year and a half of helping clean up the abandoned, sixteen-acre African-American graveyard. We happened upon East End, founded in 1897, for the first time in the spring of 2014. My wife Erin and I were hunting for African-American cemeteries where we could shoot video for a documentary that we are making. Our destination was Evergreen Cemetery, burial place of noted Richmonders Maggie Lena Walker, a civic leader and the country’s first African-American woman to charter a bank, and John Mitchell Jr., editor of the Richmond Planet, the most radical black newspaper in the South at the turn of the twentieth century. To get to Evergreen, we drove along a potholed access road through what appeared to be woodland. Behind the dense wall of foliage, Erin spotted a few headstones. These we figured were Evergreen’s outliers, maybe folks who couldn’t afford a plot in the cemetery proper. They were, in fact, a handful of the ten thousand or more markers of East End, a distinct, neighboring burial ground.
Months later, we learned that a team of volunteers was cleaning up East End, and that a group of Boy Scouts would be joining them one Saturday. After confronting a posse of deer hunters blasting away in the cemeteries, and then calling the cops – that’s another story – we started shooting video. Erin, however, immediately started wrenching vines with the scouts. She had realized something that I had not yet. This was an opportunity to reclaim history, literally, with our hands, one headstone at a time.
As volunteers hack vines and uproot ivy – some of it the poison kind – we reveal headstones that have been covered for decades. Finding a long-buried stone is thrilling. But we often don’t stop there. We research the person whose name is inscribed on it. We can’t always find records, but when we do, we reclaim another piece of history about an African community that thrived and achieved into the twentieth century, even as it was ignored and marginalized by white society.
Connecting with the living, however, is even more powerful. Often after finding a stone, Erin (she has found more than 350 – my count is six), uses Ancestry.com to track down relatives of the deceased, and then reaches out to them. So far, she has connected us with about a dozen descendants and their kin. Several have visited the cemetery – one from as far as Oregon.
On his one and only visit to the cemetery Erin’s father, Jim, found a headstone for one the most prominent East Enders we have rediscovered. Hezekiah F. Jonathan was born free in 1859. By the early twentieth century he was a major fish and produce wholesaler, vice president of the Mechanics’ Savings Bank, and a senior officer in an African-American lodge of the Knights of Pythias. Erin found most of this information in the Richmond Planet, the city’s black newspaper, editions of which are available in digital form. (Richmond’s papers of record, the Times and the Dispatch, which merged in 1903, practiced segregation and diminished black citizens in their pages. The Planet covered African-Americans in their full humanity and provides an indispensable parallel narrative to the city’s white newspapers.) Erin used Ancestry.com to track down Mary Moorhead, great-granddaughter of Hezekiah F. Jonathan and his wife Cora. A few months later, Moorhead drove down from Maryland to volunteer at East End. And she’s been back.
These connections are creating a new community – of volunteers, descendants, academics, students, and others – around the restoration effort and the history it is recovering. The state of Virginia has taken notice, approving a $400,000 grant for the work at East End and neighboring Evergreen, another historic and shamefully neglected black cemetery. The money is just a start. It won’t clear the cemetery. Only people will.
Brian Palmer is an independent visual journalist living in Richmond, VA.
Co-published with Narratively.
See Also: These Abandoned Black Cemeteries Were Long Forgotten — Until Now co-published with Buzzfeed.