I received the following from a loyal reader with Church Hill People’s News (follow them on Twitter!), “Have you ever been to Evergreen Cemetery? I think it would blow your mind.” Whoa, spoiler alert! Now I’m going into this thing with my mind pre-blown!
Here’s the research side of things: Evergreen Cemetery was established in 1891, and serviced the African-American community of the time, especially the Jackson Ward section of Richmond. Jackson Ward was known as the Harlem of the South and the Black Wall Street of America, and was the home to several prominent business owners and civil rights activists who were interned in Evergreen Cemetery. Some of the more notable interments include Maggie L. Walker (the first African-American bank president in the United States) and John Mitchell, Jr. (Famous editor of the Richmond Planet and civil rights activist.)
I understood (or thought I understood) that the cemetery was overgrown, and that there has been some controversy as to it’s upkeep. With that in mind I loaded up my beagle and my wife and we headed out.
No amount of research could really prepare me for what we found.
Walking into the cemetery you feel like you’re in the middle of a forest, because… well, you’re kind of in the middle of a forest. At some point I thought, “When is the cemetery going to start?” Then I realized… the cemetery was all around me.
Buried in the brush, covered in kudzu, sometimes next to large holes, lie the markers for peoples’ loved ones. Some of them are broken in two, while others have trees growing on the grave or (even better) growing into the headstone itself. Not to mention the mausoleum that has been broken into and has had the coffin and remains exposed. I did not see this, I did not want to see this. I am glad I did not see this.
Don’t get me wrong, there are groups that are working to repair and preserve the cemetery, and I think that is fantastic. The Maggie L. Walker site is looking especially good. It is just clear that the amount of work that is being put into the repairs is not sufficient to combat the level of neglect that has clearly been the norm.
John Shuck (follow him on Twitter!) runs The Evergreen Cemetery blog, which is a must see if you are interested in learning more about the cemetery and efforts to restore it. Hey, maybe you can even volunteer!
So, who is responsible for the current conditions of the Evergreen Cemetery? I turned on some classic rock, put on my sunglasses, and did some serious CSI work.
The original charter did not include any money for perpetual care. The original owners sold the property off to a company that quickly went bankrupt. The property is currently owned by one U K Corp (according to the Richmond Parcel Mapper), which lists one Isaiah Entzminger, Jr. as the registered agent. (According to the State Corporation Commission.) U K Corp purchased the 59.2 acre property in 1973 for $32,500 (about $173,000 in today’s money. Or the price of a small house), which Mr. Entzminger has said, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch was a “bad investment”. For additional amusement, here is Mr. Entzminger’s Facebook page.
I don’t mean to put the entirety of the blame on Mr. Entzminger or the U K Corp, but honestly why would anyone buy an overgrown cemetery if not to restore it? How exactly was this going to be a “good” investment? I also put some of the blame on the City of Richmond and regulations that exempt cemeteries established before 1919 from requiring perpetual care funds. (I honestly think that the sale of the property should have affected that.) Some blame also has to go to the families of the deceased and the community as a whole. I know that I personally would never want my remains, or my final resting ground to be treated like this. I’m going to climb down off of my soapbox now, pardon me if I offended anyone!
Is there anything in RVA YOU want to see and learn more about? Maybe somewhere happier and less macabre? Leave a comment or email me at my new address: firstname.lastname@example.org! I’m always up for exploring our area, even when it’s slightly depressing and disturbing!