AmeriCorps volunteers tackle neglected East End, Evergreen cemeteries as other volunteer group parts ways

Local News

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Some tender love and care is going into the 76 acres where countless Black Americans were buried and then neglected for decades. East End and Evergreen cemeteries are getting some much-needed help, thanks to volunteers from AmeriCorps NCCC.

Nine AmeriCorps NCCC volunteers from various parts of the country will be on-site for four weeks. They’ll start by cleaning up brush and fallen trees and will then begin documenting who is buried where.

“People want this history preserved. We don’t want it erased,” said volunteer Julia Bina, the group’s communications representative.

AmeriCorps NCCC is a national team-based program for young adults, often college students, who want to give back to communities in need across the country. These volunteers are from various parts of the country and all landing in Richmond.

“The amount of volunteers that come out here that don’t have family members [buried] but just want to help others be connected with theirs, it’s an inspiring message to me,” said Sophia Farchione, another volunteer.

The Enrichmond foundation manages both cemeteries. Executive Director John Sydnor said he’s happy to welcome AmeriCorps back on site.

“This is our commitment to the AmeriCorps purpose and drive and an amazing gift from the future leaders of the united states,” he said.

AmeriCorps is certainly not the first volunteer group at the site. In fact, this restoration project is happening as controversy swirls between another volunteer group, Friends of East End Cemetery and the Enrichmond foundation.

“The contributions that we made are clear. This cleaning, except for the most recent blast through with weed whackers, we’ve done it. We did that,” said Brian Palmer, who has family buried at the site and helps lead Friends of East End Cemetery.

cemetery clean up
East End and Evergreen cemeteries are getting some much-needed help, thanks to volunteers from AmeriCorps NCCC. (Photo Alex Thorson)

According to Palmer, the relationship between the two groups began deteriorating roughly four years ago, before the foundation even took over at the cemeteries. They eventually cut ties in November, after more than six years of frequent hands-on volunteer work.

Palmer said Enrichmond pushed the group out after years of various disagreements, including how to preserve the grave sites and how to prioritize spending at the sites.

“They didn’t engage the people on the ground,” he said.

Palmer added in June, Enrichmond also began restricting the group’s access to the sites. According to him, part of the new procedures included asking volunteers to sign waivers and hand over materials like photos, maps, and data the group had documented.

8News asked Enrichmond about the situation on Tuesday morning but Executive Director John Sydnor declined to comment.

Palmer said the group’s main concern is that the foundation doesn’t have a comprehensive, long-term plan to preserve the gravesites in desperate need.

However on Tuesday, Sydnor said a conservation project guided by Wellman Conservation LLC began two weeks ago.

“Bringing in a idea, a purpose, procedure, and method to preserving headstones and grave sites and things like that. So it’s all coming together,” he said.

Sydnor added that the consulting group was scheduled to arrive at the site this spring but COVID-19 pushed the project back until now.

“Their goal will be to develop a preliminary preservation plan. Once completed they will submit for our review. That’s going to be probably early in the new year,” Sydnor said. “It’s a guidebook on existing conditions, best practices in conservation and care of monuments, multi-phased approach to what needs repairing, what needs replacement, and finally the estimated cost per monument/structure repair or replacement.”

Palmer told 8News that the preservation effort is news to him and the other descendants. Sydnor said more details will be released about the project next week.

CORRECTION: 8News reported that the Naylor Wellman Historic Preservation group would head the project, but a correction states that Wellman Conservation LLC is leading the project.

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