Getting to into Evergreen Cemetery is difficult but managing to navigate through it might be even more of a challenge. Walkways and paved roads are completely covered over by growing kudzu and it seems that there were never any marked pathways in existence. Even if all the new growth was cleared, many of the tombstones are already lost or destroyed by acts of vandalism. It’s disheartening to see the state of the final resting place of notable people like Maggie L. Walker and Arthur Ashe, who are so important to the history of Richmond, along with the graves of 5,000 other African Americans.
It is easy to imagine that Evergreen Cemetery was once as beautiful as Hollywood Cemetery. Rolling hills and steep ravines, as well as, the two creeks, run throughout it. It is written in Selden Richardson’s Built by Blacks that Evergreen,”… was planned to be the African American equivalent of Richmond’s high-style Hollywood Cemetery for whites.”(Richardson p. 164). When the land was still maintained and still had continual landscaping, I think the two could have definitely been comparable. The two different spaces share more than just appearance. When they were built, they served as a gathering place for the communities. Michael Plater mentions in African American Entrepreneurship in Richmond that there were few places where the African American community in Richmond could meet together other than churches. In response to this, Richmond morticians like R.C. Scott built large rooms onto their funeral homes to hold fraternal meetings and other social events. These unconventional gathering places also included cemeteries. As at Hollywood Cemetery, family of those interred would gather on holidays, like Memorial Day, to picnic by their relatives’ graves and used the graveyard like a public park. Now though, few people visit the graves at Evergreen for that same purpose.
Some family members of the deceased still come to Evergreen to maintain their family plots. As time moves on though, less and less of the family members are still doing this. When the Jim Crow laws were enacted in the American South, there was a mass exodus of African Americans who fled up North to escape the harsh new laws leaving their family burial plots behind. Today their descendants still continue to leave Richmond for job opportunities in other places. Now the remaining families either have forgotten their ancestors at Evergreen, as they have begun to be buried in other better kept graveyards in Richmond, or are too old to be able to navigate the treacherous walkways. As a young healthy individual, I struggled staying upright and not tripping over the fallen trees and vines that litter the paths. I cannot conceive how difficult it would be for someone much older trying to manage to make it through to their family graves.
Not every visitor who comes to Evergreen has the same innocuous purpose as visiting or maintain family plots. The lack of maintenance and the reclaiming of nature of the monuments is not the only force that is making the gravestones vanish. Vandalism has always been a problem for Evergreen. The grave of John Mitchell Jr., a journalist, newspaper editor, and civil rights activist, who reported on the lynching and other injustices of the Jim Crow South when everyone else was too afraid, and his mother’s grave, have been defaced multiple times since they were erected. In times of racial discord, vandalism rises. Due to Mitchell’s well-known identity as a civil rights activist, he seems to be targeted more than others. In 2002 to make sure his grave could not be tampered with again, a large gravestone was put in place so that it could not be easily moved.
Evergreen is still privately owned and technically operated. The family that once owned the cemetery has lost interest in maintaining the land. Volunteers have stepped forward to clean Evergreen and the neighboring East End cemetery. Even the city donated a dumpster to help make clearing the cemeteries easier. Sadly without enough people to help continually manage the 50 acres, the kudzu and other foliage grow back rapidly.
Recently many of the families have begun to reinter their relatives in new cemeteries with better conditions. The decline and disrepair of a place that was a beacon of pride for the Richmond African American community is heartbreaking. Unless a massive effort from the community to restore this site is begun, Evergreen will slide further into destruction until it completely disappears.