By Brandon Shulleeta
With a slew of headstones broken or overrun with brush at Evergreen Cemetery, volunteers are hoping to boost efforts to restore the final resting place of thousands of black locals.
The predominantly black cemetery, at the border of Richmond and Henrico County, had been poorly maintained for decades. While volunteers have made progress in recent years in restoring the cemetery, some volunteers contend that a more aggressive campaign to attract volunteers and donors is necessary, to provide a needed facelift for the cemetery.
“It’s been overgrown for 70-plus years,” said John Shuck of Glen Allen, the volunteer coordinator for nonprofit Virginia Roots. “It’s just no respect to the dead. I guess that’s kind of why we’re out here.”
Click below to hear audio from John Shuck of Virginia Roots.
Shuck discusses Evergreen Cemetery.mp3
Virginia Roots is a nonprofit founded in 2002 that has set out to restore neglected cemeteries and other historic sites in Virginia.
Shuck, a genealogist, says burials at the cemetery date back to the 1890s, with estimates ranging from 5,000 to 20,000 different ceremonies. Volunteers are gradually clearing what has become a forest. However, restoring the 60-acre cemetery without disturbing tombstones has become a daunting task and seemingly impossible, according to some volunteers.
“I don’t know if we’re ever going to be able to find them,” said John Johnson of Richmond, who has visited the cemetery multiple times in an unsuccessful mission to find his grandparents’ plots. “It’s such a shame and a disgrace. I don’t know if it’s ever going to change.”
However, Veronica A. Davis of Hampton, the director of Virginia Roots, said she’s optimistic that progress will be made. Davis said that while there are many neglected cemeteries throughout the U.S., Evergreen Cemetery has attracted more volunteers than most cemeteries in bad shape.
Davis attributes some of the neglect to migration. Many black southerners migrated north in the early-20th Century. Black residents now compose about half of Richmond’s population, according to U.S. Census data.
Shuck said he clears brush at the cemetery most weekends and other volunteers usually join the effort. Sometimes, masses of volunteers including members of local businesses, churches, and universities, spend hours restoring the cemetery on weekends. He estimates that volunteers have dedicated several thousand hours to the cause.
However, invasive plant species have been quick to dominate the terrain when not regularly maintained, causing what one volunteer called “an uphill battle.”
“It’s overwhelming to get there and see how much work needs to be done,” said volunteer Phil Riggan of Richmond. “It would take an army to clear the entire cemetery, and an army wouldn’t get it down in a month’s time.
“It’s ridiculous how many gravesites there are and how vast a wasteland it is,” Riggan said.
Davis and Shuck say they’re now working to increase the number of volunteers, and they’re hoping to garner financial donations for the cause.
Virginia Roots is also hoping to find businesses and organizations willing to maintain slices of the cemetery through an “adopt a plot” initiative, according to John Shuck’s wife, Debbie, a volunteer.
The private cemetery pre-dates modern laws that require long-term plans for funding, according to Shuck. While some family members have maintained their loved ones’ plots, others have declined to do so or simply haven’t been able to locate their loved ones’ burial sites, Shuck said.
Shuck said some families have extracted and relocated coffins at the cemetery in response to poor upkeep, illegal dumping and other vandalism.
One mausoleum, for example, has a gaping hole in its side. Shuck said bones were visible within the mausoleum several months ago. They are no longer visible, but volunteers fear vandals removed them.
While volunteers hope the cemetery will be fully restored eventually, Johnson doubts his grandparents’ burial site will be located within his lifetime.
“In fact, to tell you the truth, I’ve kind of given up on the idea of finding them,” he said.