TO REACH EVERGREEN CEMETERY, you take the bus from downtown Richmond: Board at 7th and Marshall, pay $1.50, then ride about 20 stops until you arrive at Nine Mile and Echo. As you step off the bus, there is no sidewalk, just short grass and dilapidated houses and power lines. Then you walk along empty roads, over an underpass, past a few houses, and into a forest, thick with trees and ivy and gravestones. It is there that you find the obscure final resting place for thousands of members of Richmond’s African American community.
Evergreen Cemetery was established in 1897 by the Evergreen Cemetery Association as an African American equivalent to Richmond’s gorgeous Hollywood Cemetery, where esteemed members of Richmond’s African American community, many of them born into slavery, could be given a respectful burial. The place had long been used as a kind of potters field, and a number of the graves there predate the Civil War. Today it’s private land, and without any sort of provision for perpetual care in the cemetery’s charter, the graves are expected to be maintained by family members, people who have been dead themselves for years. So the cemetery languishes.
Professor Doug Winiarski (right), of the University of Richmond Religious Studies department, explained why Evergreen Cemetery is in such terrible condition. For starters, Evergreen is “not on the tourist agenda” in the same way as another historic Richmond landmark, Hollywood Cemetery. Winiarski explained that the formerdoesn’t carry that same “religion of the lost cause” that brings thousands of visitors to Hollywood, “sanctifying Confederate dead as true patriots.”
In addition, Evergreen is physically removed from other sites of importance on the Richmond slave trail, disconnected from its own history. All it has to offer, humbly, are the stories of human beings who affected this city and the world in ways great and small. People like John Mitchell, Jr, the “fighting editor” of the Richmond Planet starting in 1884, known for his articles crusading against lynching, who championed the rights of African Americans despite threats to his own life. John Mitchell, Jr, whose grave was so “repeatedly desecrated,” according to Winiarski, that it had to be replaced with a simple stone slab.
The cemetery is surprising. Its beauty, its devastation, its history, the wide variety of life that begs to be photographed, filmed, and memorialized. Every grave: the style of the marker, the plants around it, the condition of the headstone, the words carved into it—all speak of greater stories, of things that pull at my heart, things that I want others to see, somehow. But I will never be able to do this place justice. Only firsthand experience could do that.
Winiarski suggested that one potential solution to the neglect would be to put Evergreen Cemetery back on the map, as the “appropriate terminus of the Richmond slave trail.” Professor Winiarski echoes the sentiments of photojournalist Brian Palmer, who helped document restoration efforts at Evergreen, “This space will never get to a point where it’s properly respected until there’s a reason to go.”
I wonder: How did the cemetery get this way? Who did this? But I think I already know the answer. Humans will build temples and churches and skyscrapers and grand tombs for those we want to remember, for those we value. And for every Confederate flag neatly marked at a sharp grave in Hollywood Cemetery, there is another grave site, its headstone overturned, overgrown, lying forgotten in Evergreen. Don’t our fellow human beings deserve better than this, in life and in death?
When you get off the bus at Nine Mile and Echo, there is no sidewalk, no markings or signs directing you towards Evergreen Cemetery. You just have to know it’s there. And I didn’t know, as I walked over a busy highway and around blind curves. But on the way back, I am heavy with knowledge, with the burden of what humans have let happen to other humans. Today, to one person, at least, Evergreen Cemetery will not be forgotten.
By Molly Brind’Amour