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Volunteers Continue Work Reclaiming Abandoned African American Cemetery

In Richmond, a popular tourist destination is the large and well-landscaped Hollywood Cemetery located on the banks of the James River. But just a few miles away is another resting place that’s experienced decades of neglect. One gravestone at a time, volunteers are working to reclaim the historic African American cemetery. For Virginia Currents, Catherine Komp has more.

Learn more: Scroll down to watch an audio slideshow of East End Cemetery. Find out about upcoming volunteer opportunities at East End Cemetery and see the wood block prints created by artist Barry O'Keefe.

Update on East End Cemetery: A student at Virginia State University contacted the Community Idea Stations in September 2014 about a senior class project helping John Shuck with the reclamation work at East End Cemetery.  "It is heartbreaking to see the condition of the cemetery," wrote the student. "Every Saturday we go to the cemetery to clean and restore different areas. The project is massive and we cannot do it alone. We need the help of volunteers in the local and national community." They put together a video of the project to share and document their experiences.

Transcript:

East End Cemetery is located off a back road on the border of Richmond and Henrico County. Driving down Stoney Run Parkway, you might miss the weathered plywood sign announcing, “The Four Cemeteries at Evergreen.” Even after pulling onto the unmarked road, it’s so overgrown with trees, ivy and weeds, it’s difficult to know this is a 16 acre cemetery.

John Shuck: The owners are listed as East End Burial Association but we don’t know who the members are, so for all practical purposes it’s abandoned.

John Shuck oversees the seemingly impossible job of clearing the thick brush camouflaging thousands of grave sites. A volunteer for the non-profit Virginia Roots, he worked on neighboring Evergreen Cemetery for five years before moving to East End last July.

Shuck: Down at the end of this road, there’s probably 1,000 tires.

When Shuck first started work here, the old roads going through the cemetery were impassable. Hundreds of illegally dumped tires littered the site. Just a few plots were being maintained, including one belonging to Rosa Dixon Bowser, a woman likely born into slavery who became an influential educator and women’s advocate.

Shuck: This is Rosa Dixon Bowser’s plot, there’s her grave, her son, his wife, and I forget how these folks are related. And then you look off in here, and this is what most this looked like, a year ago.

Shuck and the volunteers he coordinates, mainly high school and VCU students, have cleared about 500 gravestones so far. But with a low estimate of 5,000-6,000 graves, this work could continue for many, many years.

Shuck: There used to be a caretakers house right here, see the mound of stuff there? There’s rubble under there.

The area is secluded, forest-like, except for hum of nearby I-64 and occasional planes roaring overhead. As we wait for a group of volunteers, we walk up the road to see a section that’s completely overgrown.

Shuck: Look back through the woods, see that obelisk back there, sticking up? About seven feet tall, pretty fancy.

As we step around poison ivy, over logs and around depressions, there are signs of a once dignified graveyard. Even a few roses continue to climb through the trees and ivy.

Shuck: And it goes on down there, and I don’t know what it does here, it kinda bends around. You can see the stones and fences there, pretty fancy posts there…

Soon two buses pull up filled with high school and college interns with the Christian community development organization CHAT.

Shuck: Hello everybody, I’m John, I’m the volunteer coordinator out here.

The youth grab gloves, loppers, rakes and bug spray from Shuck’s meticulously organized pick-up.

Shuck: What you’ll do is clear all the ivy and everything off the ground, there’ll be gravestones there to uncover. I’ve got water and a broom that we can scrub them off, if we find some buried.

Monique Meeks organized the community service trip for CHAT participants. After learning about the work at East End last year, she says she wanted to do something to help repair the “brokenness” of the cemetery.

Monique Meeks: It’s really sad to come here and see there’s just a lot that needs to be done and there are more people that need to come out here. And it’s really sad that part of our history and part of Richmond’s history is forgotten about and it’s covered up.

With the heat, mosquitoes and threat of poison ivy, the work here can be thankless. But as youth rake the leaves and pull up English Ivy, the gray corner of a stone peaks out from the earth.

Student: Let me see if I can dig out the end of the stone...

The youth carefully brush away decades of dirt that had buried this marker. Time, elements and vegetation cracked it, but the engraving is still legible:

Student: In loving memory of our co-worker James Edward Holmes, October 28 and then November 18, 1952, Armstrong High School.

Even without family connections to the cemetery, there’s a sense of pride that accompanies the clean up work. Bruce Tarr and his family started volunteering here four years ago.

Bruce Tarr: I guess when we first started at the bottom of Evergreen there was about an acre clear and when we left last summer, maybe 3 ½, maybe 4 acres and this there was nothing clear, so this has all been done since last July.

Alex Tarr: I was surprised that this happened to a cemetery.

That’s Alex, Bruce’s son. He started here when he was 11. Recently, he spotted what looked like a rock, the size of a golf ball, and started clearing.

Alex Tarr: If you see these four markers, these were all buried about four inches under the dirt where the tree had fallen on top of them and broken them.

Alex spent about 20 hours working on this family’s plot as a project for school. On the marker for Mathew Epps, it says: “From Employees from Main Street Station.”

Bruce Tarr: Each time you find or uncover a new tombstone, it’s just not a name, you realize it’s somebody’s mother, dad, grandfather and you start wondering. Every now and then you’ll see a symbol, What did they do? You’ll see something about maybe they were in the military or they were a teacher or something with the church and you start thinking that each of these people had a whole story about what they did, just like our families, and pretty much they’ve been forgotten.

Although today was a great day for volunteers, John Shuck says often it’s just him and a couple other people. He’d like to see more community involvement, perhaps through an adopt-a-plot program.

John Shuck: It’s our history, there’s history out here. Who are these folks? There’s some pretty large gravestones out there, they must have been influential in the community. This is an African American community and these stones were placed in the early part of the 1900s. There was some money out here. This cemetery, East End Cemetery was the place to be buried if you were African American.

Earlier this year, artist Barry O’Keefe made woodcut prints of Rosa Bowser, Maggie Walker and John Mitchell Jr. to help support the clean-up efforts. Shuck says they raised about $1100 which they may use to bring in goats to help clear more vegetation. Shuck says also he’s heard that a timber company may be coming in to clear-cut the area, which he hopes would raise more money for the ongoing clean-up and and help uncover more of Richmond’s diverse history. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.