For many years, the Historic Oak Lawn Cemetery in downtown Suffolk was one of the only burial places for African Americans, dating back to the 1800s. It became the final resting place for dozens of local leaders and veterans of the Spanish American War, World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam. That includes Lt. William H. Walker, a Tuskegee Airman, killed in a mid-air collision when he was 24 years old; Moses A. Riddick Jr., a civil rights activist who also served as the City’s vice mayor; and many loved ones of longtime Suffolk resident George Richards.
“Uncle George” as many affectionately called him, was in his 80s when he realized the cemetery had become neglected and overgrown. He made it his mission to restore it with the help of a small group of volunteers, including his Pastor Rev. Steven Blunt of First Baptist Church and others. When they couldn’t afford to pay someone to cut the grass. Richards did it himself. For his 90th birthday party, his daughter Dolly Richards Bowden said all he wanted was contributions to the upkeep of the cemetery. He died right before his 95th birthday in 2018.
“Many times people will start with a vision and the vision dies with them,” Dolly said. “But people continued to work on this project. They understood how important it is to honor an African American cemetery because it is the gateway to who we are. We all know they deserve to have a resting place that signifies their sweat, blood and tears.”
The growing list of supporters included some Dominion Energy volunteers who cleared brush, raked leaves and placed wreaths. Earlier this month, Dominion Energy’s Troy Lindsey, Paula Miller and Bonita Billingsley Harris returned with a $28,000 grant for the Historic Oaklawn Cemetery Foundation.
“It’s important for us to remember and honor those who came before us, on whose shoulders we stand,” said Bonita Billingsley Harris, Dominion Energy’s Director of Media Relations. “The people buried here contributed so much to our community and our country.”
The Foundation President, Reginald Dirtion accepted the donation, with other Board members, First Baptist Church supporters, descendants and City Officials – Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett, Councilman Lue Ward and Councilman LeOtis Williams and City Manager Al Moore.
Dirtion agreed “Uncle George” would be pleased.
“When I would go pick him up for church on Sunday, he always wanted to ride by here to look at the cemetery and I would say to myself – Lord have mercy. I hope the grass is cut,” he laughed.
Fortunately, one of the dedicated volunteers had usually taken care of it as a labor of love. Now Dirtion says they’re in a much better position to provide the maintenance the historic landmark needs.
92-year-old Otis Walter Richards, George’s younger brother, and Army veteran is also grateful to see the cemetery receiving a resurgence of support from the City and community. “It’s wonderful, way past due. We really appreciate it.”