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Finding ‘Hidden’ Stories In African-American Cemeteries

The book “Hidden Figures” and the movie by the same name have sparked an interest among many about little known or unknown relevant bits and pieces of Black history.

The stories in “Hidden Figures” were buried beneath layers of deletion, fear and racism. Today, we know from “Hidden Figures” that educated Black women, during the time of Jim Crow, used their skills developed at Black colleges to help develop the nation’s ability to trek into space.

Another site of hidden history may be found among graveyards, those well groomed and quiet spaces which house our final remains.

Today Black people can choose where they want that six-foot plot of eternal rest.

But during the era of Jim Crow, we could not lay our dead in graveyards where Whites were buried.

Benevolent societies, families, churches and rural and urban neighborhoods joined to fashion their own graveyards in back yards and isolated spots near communities of Black folk.
The layman was buried next to the teacher; families or groups lay the dead in selected spots for generations.

Lynn Rainville wrote a book on the subject of historic African-Americans cemeteries, “Hidden History: African-Americans cemeteries in Central Virginia” (University of Virginia Press, 2014).

A Chicago native, she began her research to unearth the history of derelict or neglected grave sites where Blacks, free and enslaved, were buried.

She said, in Virginia, the oldest American graveyards housed the remains of slaves on the plantations where they were born, lived and worked until death.

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They sit on or near the tree lined campuses of old White colleges such as Sweet Briar College near the Blue Ridge Mountains where her first research on the subject began or the nearby University of Virginia.

Others sit beneath busy highways running through the state, or the parking lots of office buildings and in the downtown areas of large cities such as Richmond.

While some are well known and well maintained, there are many which are not.

The privately-owned, Betty Jones Memorial Cemetery in Virginia Beach is a good example of one which has been the object of concern and complaint about how it has been poorly maintained.

In Richmond, the Evergreen Cemetery and East End are two in the capital city. Evergreen is a historically Black cemetery located in the far East End of the city. Businesswoman Maggie L. Walker, the first Black woman to own a bank in the nation, is buried there among other noted African-Americans linked to Richmond and Virginia History.

Mt. Olive or Paige Cemetery in the Berkley section of Norfolk, is the resting place of some of Norfolk’s many historical figures linked to the city.

Also the ashes of physician and activist Dorothy Ferebee are sprayed near the grave sites of her kinfolk.

One of the legislative achievements of State Delegate Delores McQuinn of Richmond and the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus during the 2017 legislative session, was the passage of a bill carrying a price tag of $34,875 to pay for the maintenance and upkeep of Evergreen, East End and other neglected and historic graveyards in her district.

This bill opens the door for other cemeteries to apply for similar treatment, but they’d have to meet strict criteria — including being established in the 19th century and having a nonprofit support system in place.

McQuinn’s bill will join a foundation grant of $400,000 to enable a nonprofit to buy Evergreen and East End and create an easement to protect them.

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It will also be the blueprint for other Black lawmakers to emulate and secure funding for similar sites in their districts.

While thousands of dollars from the state treasury are used to maintain the graveyards for Confederate soldiers who fought to preserve slavery, this is the first time funds have been dedicated for slaves and the kin born after them.

“They have been left out of the equation,” said Del. McQuinn, who sponsored the bill. “We’ve got a whole laundry list of Confederate cemeteries and Revolutionary cemeteries that are given money every year. We’re not asking for anything out of the normal.”

Recently using some of those funds, McQuinn led a small army of volunteers with garbage bags, axes and other tools to clean up Evergreen and East End. This was the first of such efforts.

One member of the small army was newly elected Delegate Cliff Hayes of the 77th District of Chesapeake and surrounding locales. With members of his family in tow, he assisted in the clean up of the graveyard in Richmond. He said he is considering submitting a bill to cover the cost of cleaning and restoring cemeteries in his district.

He said he has identified some sites in his district.

“We only made a small dent that day. There was so much to do,” said Del. Hayes. “But it is so important that we not forget from whence we came. It was a honor to go and help clean up that cemetery. I want to piggy-back on what Delegate McQuinn has done.”

Hayes said he was excited to see the grave of Maggie Walker. He said it was in relatively good condition. He said a year ago it would have been hard to walk to that section of the Evergreen Cemetery.

For various reasons, including the Black community’s access to White graveyards and family trees dying, the gravesites of Walker’s, and other Blacks, famous and ordinary, were left unmaintained for many years.

Hayes noted the clean up of Evergreen registered on many of the others who worked with him recently.

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“I was amazed at the diversity of the people that came to help,” said Hayes. “There were not only Black people there, but White, young there to help.”

By Leonard E. Colvin
Chief Reporter

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