Cemetery Credibility and What It Means to Be a Descendant

by Adam Rosenblatt, PhD


In a video posted on YouTube in late May, three women sit on chairs outdoors. Their green surroundings might take a moment to recognize as a cemetery. You can just make out the headstones and small American flags on the grass. These women—Viola Baskerville, Veronica Davis, and the Rev. Delores McQuinn—are prominent voices in Richmond, Virginia’s African American community. Davis is a public historian and preservationist, and McQuinn currently sits in the Virginia House of Delegates. Baskerville is a lawyer and former politician. She opens this video, titled “Evergreen Cemetery Legacy,” with a key fact: she has ancestors buried in the cemeteries that surround her, East End and Evergreen, adjacent African American burial grounds in Richmond and Henrico County.

Virginia Commonwealth University medical students, volunteering with the Friends of East End Cemetery, unearth one half of a broken headstone on April 12, 2019. Photograph by Brian Palmer.

The video, produced by the Enrichmond Foundation, is not simply about the legacy of these three women and their work. It is a piece of public relations launched into an increasingly bitter battle over the future of the cemeteries. The foundation, an environment and open spaces-focused entity formed to support Richmond’s Department of Parks, Recreation, and Community Facilities, now owns both of these cemeteries. And it faces growing criticism.

In the video, the Enrichmond allies Baskerville, Davis, and McQuinn mobilize multiple forms of credibility: as “African American women who understand the history,” in Baskerville’s words; as people who were involved with early preservation efforts at the cemeteries; and, in Baskerville’s case, as a descendant. Enrichmond’s description for the video warns of “concerns with individuals and groups with no real ties or proof of ties to descendants buried in the cemetery disrespecting the legacy of those who began the process of making the cemeteries look like what they look like today.” The three women sitting on chairs present themselves as an inner circle, formed through shared identities, time, and roots. Outside of that circle, the description says, are people with the wrong identities and no history at the cemeteries. People who don’t have ancestors in the ground.

Except that this is a lie. In staging this encounter, Enrichmond is seeking to mute the voices of its most potent critics. This past March, a recently-formed Descendants Council sent an open letter to Governor Ralph Northam raising questions about Enrichmond; that group includes many people with ancestors buried at East End and Evergreen, people with long memories of these places. One of them is Baskerville’s own sister, the Rev. Josine Osbourne. Enrichmond owns the two cemeteries already; in the YouTube video it also makes its pitch for exclusive claim over the label of descendant, the credibility that comes with being African American in Richmond and having poured a lot of sweat into the cemetery over the years. Identity, time, roots.

The controversies at East End and Evergreen should be of interest to anyone concerned with the memory landscapes of the United States: not just the Confederate statues being removed from their pedestals in Richmond and other cities, but the necessary and complementary reclamation of African American heritage sites. These sacred places have sat for too long in the shadows of those statues and their Lost Cause narratives.

Those of us who work in neglected cemeteries (in addition to my fieldwork in Richmond, I serve on the board of the Friends of Geer Cemetery in Durham, North Carolina, where I live) often put significant energies towards locating descendants and making sure their voices are part of the planning process, helping to envision what a “reclaimed” cemetery would look like.  Descendants share an incomparable connection to the dead and the places where those dead are buried. But they also speak from different positions, and rarely with one voice. Sometimes they speak over one another.

Both East End and Evergreen are what historian Ryan K. Smith calls “post-Emancipation uplift cemeteries,”1 founded in the 1890s by and for African Americans, many of whom were born enslaved, as an answer to the pressing problem of finding dignified places to bury their dead. Richmond’s cemeteries, like the rest of its landscape, were segregated and deeply inegalitarian places, with public funds flowing exclusively to the White dead. The generation that founded and now rests in these cemeteries—including the entrepreneurs, educators, and activists Maggie L. Walker, John Mitchell Jr., Richard F. Tancil, and Rosa Dixon Bowser—sought to make them places of pastoral beauty. As has been all too common for African American burial grounds, however, a long list of indiginities—lack of access to capital, vandalism and dumping, the displacement and destruction of Black communities through “urban renewal”—all fueled the cemeteries’ slow decline.

People call them “abandoned,” but this is inaccurate. Families have been coming out to maintain individual plots in these cemeteries for generations. In the 1990s, volunteer groups began efforts to address conditions in Evergreen, the larger of the two cemeteries. Davis, along with African American park ranger Jim Bell, was one of the early pioneers. But momentum was hard to sustain, and  headstones often disappeared again beneath the weeds. In 2013, members of the group that became the Friends of East End started weekly work in the cemetery. They quickly became the main presence at East End (other groups were occasionally active in Evergreen) through their herculean efforts to clear weeds and find markers, as well as their research into the lives of the deceased and oral histories they conducted with living relatives.

In 2017, just as Virginia was passing legislation that would make public funds available for African American burial grounds for the first time, the nonprofit Enrichmond purchased Evergreen. In a process with no public input, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation—where Baskerville is a board member—gave Enrichmond $400,000 to acquire the land, in effect anointing it the state’s preferred partner. In 2019, Enrichmond also acquired East End.

Since these acquisitions, waves of controversy have followed Enrichmond’s work in the cemeteries (or lack thereof). The Friends of East End and other Richmonders have raised concerns about what they see as slow and selective progress in preservation efforts. Through its complex waiver form for volunteers, Enrichmond initially sought to lay claim to all research and images produced on site; the Friends of East End refused to sign.

East End Cemetery, May 19, 2021. Photograph by Brian Palmer.

In 2020, the situation got even worse. Exposed human remains were found at East End. They likely belong to African Americans whose bodies were stolen in the late nineteenth century, dissected at the nearby medical school and then hastily reburied in a mass grave. Enrichmond staff called the finding “neat” and posted images of the remains, taken by reporters at the cemetery, on the organization’s social media accounts (after an outcry, these were removed).

Enrichmond’s first response to criticism—in the video discussed here, as well as other videos and public statements—is to point to its (recently disbanded) community advisory board and relationships with descendants. With some descendants on one side, supporting Enrichmond, and a new Descendants Council on the other calling for more oversight, do these voices simply cancel each other out? How do we respect the transcendent authority of descendants when they don’t seem to want the same things? It’s a thorny question of authority that reverberates far beyond Richmond: in burial grounds around the country and other spaces where people seek to repair some of the displacement, thievery, and erasure that genocide, enslavement, and settler colonialism leave in their wake.

I am White and Jewish, and I have no ancestors buried in these cemeteries. When I think about what it means to be part of a “descendant community” I think of my Holocaust survivor grandparents and all of the dead they left behind in Polish soil, unmarked and unrecoverable. My efforts at amateur genealogy lead to ghettos and camps where people just disappear.

As I described in my book about the exhumation of mass graves at atrocity sites around the world, the descendants of Holocaust victims may disagree about whether mass graves in Europe, now over a half a century old, should be exhumed or left undisturbed. We can reference sacred Jewish texts—many of them allowing for conflicting interpretations—or our own intuitions, morals, and intimate desire to care for the violated dead. We can share ties and trauma, yet still not see eye to eye.

It matters that Baskerville is a descendant, that all of the women in Enrichmond’s video have deep roots in Richmond and experience with East End and Evergreen. Matters a lot. The relationships between living people and their dead are more important, and more complex, than we often acknowledge. But categories such as ”descendant,” “families of the disappeared,” or “victims’ families” are rarely monolithic.

The descendant community can be a larger circle than initially appears, with a meaningful place not only for people who trace their bloodlines to a specific site but also those who have “a shared historical experience.” Debra Taylor Gonzalez-Garcia, the President of the Friends of Geer Cemetery (who first arrived in Durham to attend its historically black university), once said of the people buried at that site: “They’re not my people, but they are my stories.”

It’s striking that, in Enrichmond’s video, Baskerville, Davis, and McQuinn don’t address any of the criticisms leveled against Enrichmond (and raised in the Descendants Council letter), whether they are about the lack of transparency in its fundraising, alienating other volunteer groups, or the current sporadic—and sometimes careless—upkeep of the cemeteries. Instead, they say, “This is our narrative,” and that others are seeking to steal it. They say, “We have people who have a vested interest in this cemetery.” They warn, “you have to have the right spirit.” You are inside the circle, or you are suspect.

At a public hearing about the cemeteries in October 2020, Jarene Fleming discussed Enrichmond’s plan for a $2 million visitor’s center at Evergreen. Like Baskerville, Fleming has ancestors buried at East End and Evergreen. A longtime volunteer in the cemeteries, she showed me a video of multiple generations gathered at a family plot, singing “I Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody,” a favorite spiritual of her father’s, the late Rev. James R. Fleming. “I don’t believe that we need a visitor’s center. I believe we need a plan, an endowment, a perpetual care fund, so that the cemetery is restored and maintained adequately. Even over the summer I saw the forest can take it back very quickly. When cleanup is done it’s not done in a careful way. My tax dollars are now being funneled into an organization that has no previous experience, no oversight, and no accountability. Truly it seems like they can do what they want with my ancestors’ bones.” Does Jarene Fleming simply not have “the right spirit”?

Enrichmond’s video offers us a spectacle of credibility: three prominent people instructing all of Richmond as to who can be trusted, and whose questions are the right ones to ask. Evergreen Cemetery serves a backdrop, the camera never moving from where these women sit, center-stage.

This dismissive and misleading discourse cheapens the conversation for everyone. The people buried at East End and Evergreen had to do what they did—establish their own cemeteries with no help, and then fight to keep them looking dignified—because White society saw them as less than human. The way to honor their descendants is to treat them as fully human, and thus complicated: full of love and anger, with complex motivations, capable of being committed to good causes and of making mistakes. People can have different interpretations of what their ancestors need from them. But anyone walking around the cemeteries, in their current state, might have a hard time simply accepting, based on the reassurance of a few insiders, that this sacred ground is in the right hands and everything will be fine.

A few hundred yards from where Baskerville, Davis, and McQuinn sat and filmed a video for Enrichmond, weeds are growing over the headstones again. Graves once visible because volunteers found and cleaned them are re-disappearing into waist-high grass. Even people who proclaim that these burial grounds are “their narrative” need to have a real answer for that.


Notes

1. Smith, Ryan K. Death and Rebirth in a Southern City: Richmond’s Historic Cemeteries. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020, 208-241.

One Comment

  • Suzanne Gallo

    I suggest as part of reparations that all African-American cemeteries should have perpetual care and be elevated to their well deserved place in America’s history. Right around the corner from the cemetery is the Confederate soldiers portion of the cemetery which hAs perpetual care. If I were part of this group that is what I would strive for.

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