A New Generation Of Volunteers, Descendants Are Preserving Black Cemeteries

The fight against racial inequality has renewed efforts to preserve Black history and Black lives after death.

TIME put a spotlight on the Black cemeteries of Richmond, Virginia, which saw generations of struggling burial sites due to development projects and lack of support. These burial sites have seen new volunteers and custodians through funding, government cooperation and upkeep. The state's General Assembly has "recognized the worth of historic Black graves by awarding them annual funding for care beginning in 2018," according to the magazine.

TIME also highlighted the history and significance of renowned preacher John Jasper and the church he founded in Richmond -- Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church. His congregation had humble beginnings but became a "a striking church edifice in the neighborhood of Jackson Ward, sheltering thousands of members plus a steady number of white visitors," TIME wrote.

When he died, he was buried at the Black-owned Richmond’s Sons and Daughters of Ham Cemetery in 1901. Public Black burials were "limited and mostly relegated to rough 'potter’s fields' or vulnerable, segregated lowlands" in urban Virginia areas. Jasper's congregation raised a 20-foot granite obelisk over his grave, commemorating his legacy. Seventeen years later, Jasper's congregation were forced to move his remains to another cemetery.

Why? Well, during that time, developers turned Richmond's north-side neighborhoods into suburbs for white residents. Burial ground associations and supporters butt head with suburban residents over the land, but the former lost as Barton Heights was incorporated as a town.

"Authorities were able to persuade Virginia’s General Assembly that the cemeteries had become a nuisance and a health hazard. The town was soon authorized to close the site to further burials, being able, in its view, 'to relieve itself of the objectionable features of the colored cemeteries overlooking Bacon Quarter Branch,'" according to TIME. This was part of a pattern of desecrating Black burial sites in the area. As a result, Jasper's congregation moved his remains and obelisk to the newly-opened Woodland Cemetery.

Woodland was founded in 1917 for Black Americans by by newspaper editor John Mitchell Jr. Eventually, the Black cemetery would see issues like trash on graves, vandalism, and public disinvestment. "By the 1990s, when tennis champion and humanitarian Arthur Ashe chose to be buried alongside his mother’s grave in Woodland, journalists could describe the cemetery as a “dumping ground” with swaths of overgrown forest engulfing whole sections," TIME said.

Descendants of those buried at Richmond's Black cemeteries have struggled with upkeep at these sites, but they persisted. Over time, the civil rights movement has prompted renewed efforts to restore and preserve Black burial sites. Figures like genealogist Denise Lester lead efforts to restore and recognize the importance of Barton Heights Cemeteries.

"Today, these cemeteries are part of a network of recovery, championed by a range of organizations such the National Trust for Historic Preservation... [and] Preservation Virginia," according to TIME. In 2018, volunteer cleanup days would come on a weekly basis at Woodland Cemetery. Come 2020, local real estate professional Marvin Harris acquired the cemetery in August. Harris is using his nonprofit Evergreen Restoration Foundation, along with county government assistance, to offer a "new vision" for the resting places of Jasper, Ashe and Black cemeteries nationwide.

Photos: Getty Images

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