What Do We — the Living — Owe to the Past?

By Christopher Graham, St. Paul’s Historian

When we think about creation care, do we wonder about the ways that we care for the dead and the places they lie? Richmond’s East End Cemetery is a vibrant and evocative place to contemplate nature, the afterlife, and what they mean to the living today. Founded in 1891 as Greenwood Cemetery by an association of prominent Richmond African Americans, East End (along with the adjacent Evergreen Cemetery) became the resting ground for people as famous as Maggie L. Walker and John Mitchell, Jr., to hundreds of tobacco factory workers, day laborers, church members, and domestic servants. Indeed, the history of black Richmond—and Richmond itself—can be read in the rows upon rows of headstones.

Yet, under the varied pressures of political marginalization due to Jim Crow, economic outmigration spurred by lack of opportunities, and the destruction of black neighborhoods in urban renewal, East End fell into disrepair. By the early 2000s, the entire sixteen-acre site had become overgrown with forest and ivy, its thousands of headstones obscured and sinking into the earth.

The recovery effort, led by volunteers and descendants, began in 2013 and has worked diligently to clean up trash, clear brush, and reclaim headstones from the ground. In the process, university researchers have used East End and Evergreen to tell us about everything from reforestation, insect and plant infestation, and trends in the history of disease and death in Richmond. The cemeteries have drawn the attention of journalists, activists, politicians, and historians who see in them the recovery of the half of Richmond’s history that had been lost to the forces of racism and a dominant culture that did not recognize the lives and experiences of black people.

The current status of East End—park-like and partially recovered—and now in the hands of a local non-profit, also forces us to think about what the living owe to the past. Should it be a place of recreation? Should it be a landscape of contemplation? Is it a resource for Richmond, or should it be the preserve of descendants first?

St. Paul’s own history contributed to the dominant narrative of historical Richmond. In fact, Evergreen cemetery is the site of a small bit of St. Paul’s history. We have an interest—an obligation, even—help East End and Evergreen take their rightful place in Richmond’s historical landscape.

As St. Paul’s spends the month of May thinking about our role in environmental stewardship and creation care, we have an opportunity to act by spending Saturday morning, May 11, with the Friends of East End Cemetery clean-up crew. Won’t you join us in helping to clear the historical weeds that obscure our present and future?

See here for more information on the cleanup, and here for more information on our Creation Care series.