RICHMOND, Va. — A new way to protect historic African American cemeteries will soon go into effect in Virginia, allowing the people who oversee these grave sites to get funding from the Commonwealth for preservation.
HB 284 was signed into law last Friday by Gov. Ralph Northam, a bill sponsored by Del. Delores McQuinn (District 70 – D).
It aims to help restore historic sites, such as the Evergreen Cemetery in Richmond. If you walk into the cemetery, you’ll see trees and vines growing over some of the old graves and monuments. It opened in the late 1800’s and was at one time the largest black cemetery in the city. An estimated 20,000 people were buried here, according to the caretaker.
“It is a little bit morbid to say it was a beautiful cemetery, but you’d have to see it in its’ early stages,” said Rev. H. Creed Taylor, of the St. Paul’s Baptist Church.
Rev. Taylor came to the cemetery a lot when he was a kid.
“We would come over on Memorial Day to clean graves over here,” he explained. “It was like a family outing, a family gathering.”
His great-great grandfather Coleman C. Smith is buried near the original entrance. It’s completely overgrown now and difficult to get to, unless if you have a big truck like Rev. Taylor. He took Capitol Correspondent Sara McCloskey for a ride to see the grave.
“[He] was actually a slave at first and he fought in the Civil War,” Rev. Taylor said, adding that Smith also owned a store in the city at one point too after moving to Virginia from Ohio.
“Without him, there is no me,” Rev. Taylor said.
About a year ago, the Enrichmond Foundation bought the cemetery and has been working to restore it to its’ glory days. Ted Maris-Wolf came on as the caretaker, organizing groups of volunteers who have come through and clear out the overgrown forest. Their work has revealed hidden graves.
“The hope one day, of course, is to offer these individuals a proper headstone,” Maris-Wolf said.
Much more work has to be done, but now groups working with these historic sites can apply for funding from the Commonwealth to help cover the costs, through the new law that goes into effect July 1st.
“It will allow us, and many cemeteries throughout the state, to open up pathways, access ways to clear grave sites so that family can be reunited with their loved ones,” Maris-Wolf said.
The amount of money allocated is calculated by the number of graves and monuments at each location or the actual total cost of routine maintenance.
“This bill is a statement to all Virginians that not only are these African American sacred sites worth preserving, which they are, but they are also worth supporting with our tax dollars,” Maris-Wolf said. “In recent years, the state is making tangible steps towards an inclusive history where African American History is seen as essential to American History.”
People with close ties to these cemeteries, like Rev. Taylor, hope visiting will giving others a glimpse at the past, while reuniting loved ones.
“So that my children can come and see what I saw when I was a young man. Maybe, they won’t let it get to the point as we have it now,” he said. “We are going to unearth a whole lot of rich history.”