Day #061: The Four Cemeteries at Evergreen

The contrast between Civil War cemeteries in Richmond and The Four Cemeteries at Evergreen raises questions about how we tell the story of this city.

Inspired by Michael Bierut’s 100 Day Project, 100 Days to a Better RVA strives to introduce and investigate unique ideas to improving the city of Richmond. View the entire project here and the intro here.

  • Idea: Funding and leadership to expedite the reclamation of the Four Cemeteries at Evergreen.
  • Difficulty: 2 — Richmond has no shortage of project ideas and no abundance of cash, but it’s tough to imagine public opinion going against this nobel and historical cause.

Richmond’s story is best told through the final resting places and monuments to its most important deceased citizens. Hollywood Cemetery, Monument Avenue, and Oakwood Cemetery tell the stories of people who built, burned, and rebuilt Richmond, but the telling of that story is incomplete.

Oakwood Cemetery may feel like the eastern boundary of the city, but just a little further, at the bottom of the hill straddling the border between Richmond and Henrico, the Four Cemeteries at Evergreen lies hidden down a gravel road. In many ways, the neighboring cemeteries tell a tale of two cities. Perched on a hill with carefully groomed lawns, Oakwood Cemetery honors 17,000 white soldiers who fought to deny opportunities to their now eternal and accomplished neighbors at the bottom of the hill.

Wedged in a forgotten forest between I-64 and East Richmond Road, the Four Cemeteries at Evergreen houses some of the most famous black Richmonders of the 19th and 20th centuries. Evergreen, the largest and most significant of the four, is the final resting place of Maggie L. Walker, Rosa L. Dixon Bowser, John Mitchell Jr., and thousands of other black pioneers who literally helped build this city.

Unfortunately, when purchasing plots, families didn’t pay for a perpetual care fund, and the cemeteries have been severely neglected. Abandoned by owners who are likely now deceased, the 16-acre East End Cemetery has been reclaimed by forest. For over five years, John Shuck has been leading volunteers every week to clear fallen trees, remove English ivy, and uncover head stones.1 So far they have unearthed 500 of the roughly 5,000 graves.

Fortunately, the Four Cemeteries at Evergreen offers Richmond an opportunity to turn this into a tale of one city. The Virginia General Assembly gave $30,000 to Oakwood Cemetery in 1930 for perpetual care.2 Leaders should approach the state about a $433,0003 appropriation for city wide cemetery reclamation.

The city government is somewhat limited because the property is private. Funds could go towards equipment for the already healthy number of volunteers, historical research, and reclaiming other cemeteries. Shuck suggested creating an adopt-a-plot system. The city or state should think about purchasing the properties in the long run because of their historical significance. Most importantly, the government needs to draw attention to this project.

What obligation does Richmond have to its deceased residents? What is an acceptable way to care for the final resting places of the deceased? It’s easy to justify the neglect with the failure to provide for perpetual care, but there has to be a statute of limitations on history–especially considering some of these individuals were born into slavery.

The Four Cemeteries at Evergreen may be hidden in the woods down a gravel path, but to anyone who has visited, they are a constant reminder of the stark contrast between our obsession with white people from the years 1861-1865 and our neglect of the history of other equally important players in the story of Richmond. Reclaiming The Four Cemeteries at Evergreen is a necessary and worthy cause that deserves attention from residents, the city, and the state.

Love this idea? Think it’s terrible? Have one that’s ten times better? Head over to the 100 Days to a Better RVA Facebook page and join in the conversation.

  1. I highly recommend everyone volunteers at least once. John Shuck is very welcoming, and the work is incredibly worthwhile. 
  2. The act required the governor to annually visit the cemetery. I’m guessing that clause has been long neglected. 
  3. $433,000 is approximately $30,000 adjusted for inflation using the CPI-U. 
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Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams loves music, basketball (follow @rvaramnews!), family, learning, and barbecue sauce.

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. Chase Guerrant on said:

    Great write-up Aaron, been waiting for your piece on this.

  2. “Oakwood Cemetery honors 17,000 white soldiers who fought to deny opportunities to their now eternal and accomplished neighbors at the bottom of the hill.”

    Well, no. Not quite.

    While you are correct that something should be done about Evergreen, I disagree with your assertation about the men in Oakwood. The states of the South seceded for several reasons (slavery arguably being one, but also, as in Virginia’s case, because they were told to provide troops to a cause they felt was illegal — suppressing the South — but fought only for one: they were invaded by the US, which had the intent to force them into a Union they no longer wanted to be in. Those of us who believe that righteous government includes “the will of the governed” the distiction is important.

  3. Forgive me for not posting this before, but I should have given kudos to John Shuck for working hard to keep these cemeteries in as good a condition as he can with his team of hard-working laborers. Thank you!

  4. Aaron Williams on said:

    @Chase Thanks.

    @Jsmith I’m not arguing the causes of the Civil War, although I bet we disagree. I’m simply making the assertion that the southern states fought a war that would have denied opportunities to blacks.

  5. Is it possible to justify spending on the upkeep to the final resting spot of the deceased to the living taxpayers ultimately footing the bill… especially if they are not RVA citizens?

    This is not to say it’s not important, but more to the point of finding a truly compelling argument to approach legislators with… especially when it’s so hard for them to trim the budget without this issue factored in to provide necessities and amenities to their living constituents.

    Additionally, is it better to look at the $30,000 appropriation as a historic expense with adjustment from inflation, or as one that needs to be refactored completely in today’s term for an overhaul of existing problem-areas, then another figure for perpetuity?

    Finally, could it be a better suggestion to approach an advetising or pr firm to solicit the public for donations on a small fee/pro bono basis to cover the expenses?

  6. ceaddy on said:

    To those who have not been out there to join the clean up efforts, it’s hard to have an opinion. John Shuck is a wonderful individual that is dedicated and motivated to clear and uncover the neglected sites. Having spent a day there it’s sad and disheartening to realize how little can possibly get done in a day. Better resources are needed if a true effort is going to be made. Thank you for the great article and bringing this important matter to the foreground.

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