After Years of Decay and Neglect, 2 Historical Black Cemeteries to Get Much-Needed Restoration

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A headstone in the East End Cemetery in Henrico County, Virginia. Photo by Brian Palmer.

A far cry from the beautifully manicured cemeteries reserved for fallen Confederate soldiers, a number of African-American graves and cemeteries have fallen prey to decay, neglect and vandalism throughout the years. However, one Democratic state delegate from Virginia is working to change that.

Delores McQuinn introduced a bill on Dec. 29 that would provide funds for the purpose of preserving historical African-American cemeteries established before 1900. House Bill 1547, drafted in collaboration with the administration of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, would essentially allocate close to $35,000 each year to maintain the graves and cemeteries of “African-Americans who lived at any time between Jan. 1, 1800, and Jan. 1, 1900,” according to The New York Times.

Disbursement of the funds will begin in 2018 as gravesite preservationists look forward to the appropriations becoming a part of Virginia’s Code of Ethics, just like monetary provisions for Confederate graves.

“These cemeteries hold some of the iconic leaders of the past who in many ways have never been given their due honor,” McQuinn told New York Times columnist Brian Palmer, who wrote an op-ed on neglected Black cemeteries. “Funds have been earmarked for Revolutionary War and Confederate graves, which deserve that honor and attention,” she said. “This is just extending it to sites that have been left out of the equation. The amount of the appropriation is quite small. The symbolism, however, is huge.”

According to Virginia’s Legislative System, House Bill 1547 specifically lists two cemeteries, the East End Cemetery in Henrico County and Evergreen Cemetery in the city of Richmond, to receive the funds allocated for approximately 6,975 grave sites. In his op-ed, Palmer and his wife visited the East End Cemetery, which he described as badly neglected and overrun with thick, tangled vegetation.

“There is no lawn, just a patchwork — weeds, dead brown leaves, bare earth. Headstones are cracked, askew, even shattered, by nature or by vandals,” he wrote of the African-American graveyard. “Encroaching tree roots have buckled and broken concrete curbs that once enclosed family plots.”

Palmer noted that both the East End and Evergreen cemeteries were established because white cemeteries refused to accept Black burials. He said, for decades, state and county agencies have ignored the deteriorating mortuaries, while more than a dozen Confederate cemeteries across the state have received thousands in monetary allotments. For instance, Virginia’s General Assembly has given more than $700,000 to the United Daughters of the Confederacy between 2007 and mid-2016, according to Palmer’s article.

But times are changing. The Virginia Outdoors Foundation, a state agency, moved to award the East End and Evergreen Cemeteries a $400,000 grant in June 2016. A large chunk of the funds is expected to go toward purchasing the two properties and taking care of legal costs. However, additional money must be raised to maintain the sites’ restoration.

McQuinn’s efforts to save the historic cemeteries come just a year after an African burial ground was discovered in East Harlem, New York. Documents show that the site was once a Dutch Reformed Church “Negro Burying Ground” where Black people were buried from the 17th through 19th centuries, Atlanta Black Star reported. There likely are many other such burial sites out there containing vital historical information about Black people and our culture that have been forgotten over the years.

“Nobody has ever really looked at how many African-American cemeteries there are,” across America, but especially in the South, Dr. Michael Trinkley, an archaeologist who works with the Chicora Foundation, told Palmer. But “you can’t have the history of the South without having the history of African-Americans.”

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