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Volunteers, New Ownership Breathe Life into Historic Cemetery

Man standing in front of gates
Marvin Harris became involved with the restoration of historic Black cemeteries in Richmond during a service project with former high school classmates. (Photo: Jakob Cordes/VPM)

Walking past a brush pile at Woodland Cemetery, Kathleen Harrel stops to point out a group of headstones, set back only a few feet from the road. “This is the section that we've been working on since last August. And if you can imagine, nothing but a wall of brush, like you couldn't see that large stone at all.”

Harrel, a teacher in Henrico County, has been volunteering at Woodland Cemetery for over a year, clearing brush and helping to identify gravestones, some of which are over a hundred years old. She says they’ve had to redo sections cleared last summer, which grew back when they stopped work due to the pandemic.

“We cleared this back in August, and two weeks ago a lot of it was back up,” Harrel said.

Harrel says the biggest challenge isn’t clearing new areas, but simply maintaining the plots they’ve already cleared. “There are a lot of weeds that sort of become more like trees if you let them go. And that doesn't take long at all. Maybe just a couple months.”

Woodland Cemetery was a prestigious burial-ground for Richmond’s African American residents in the early 20th century, along with the neighboring East End and Evergreen cemeteries. The properties fell into neglect and decline, changing hands multiple times, before volunteers began cleaning and documenting the gravesites. Now, the 30 acre Woodland site has been purchased by Marvin Harris, a local business owner and advocate for Richmond’s historic Black cemeteries.

Harris, a graduate of Maggie L. Walker High School, hopes to ensure the property remains cared for long into the future. He says his involvement began at Evergreen Cemetery, with a service project planned during his 50th reunion. “We decided that we wanted to get involved with a community project and one of the ones that came to mind was the restoring of Evergreen Cemetery, which Maggie Walker is interred in,” he said.

Harris originally intended to raise money to purchase Evergreen cemetery, but at the time his foundation, the Evergreen Restoration Foundation, was too new to receive state support. Instead, the Enrichmond Foundation purchased Evergreen, and Harris and the other volunteers turned their attention to Woodland.

His first attempt wasn’t successful. “I was afforded the opportunity to purchase Woodland about maybe two years ago. And in doing so the owner became ill,” Harris said.

He almost missed the next opportunity to buy the property. Harris says a local pastor decided  to purchase the cemetery. “He put his bid in, and they were going to allow him to purchase it in between, but he couldn't come up with the funding,” Harris said. “So the opportunity came back and I consider that to be a godsend.”

Woodland is the final resting place of tennis legend Arthur Ashe, along with many prominent Black residents. Like East End and Evergreen, it opened before perpetual care arrangements were required for cemeteries, meaning that the families of the deceased were responsible for future upkeep costs.

Dr. Ryan Smith, a professor of history at VCU, says the cemetery was originally well cared-for by a community board, but money troubles and a series of sales led to a decline after World War II. “Some of [the owners] did charge annual care fees for families that couldn't perhaps care for their own plots,” Smith said. “But for the most part, they did not have a lot of money in the bank that would provide the kind of resources and income to take care of plots that families themselves couldn’t.”

Smith says he sees the new restoration efforts as part of a wider transformation in attitudes towards Black history. “We see the changing landscape all around us. We see Monument Avenue changing before our eyes. And we've seen that with the cemeteries too, with a lot of these places being reclaimed and recovered, that had been full of overgrowth and overlooked by the city and by a lot of the white residents.”

Now that funding to purchase Woodland is secured, Harris says the real work of restoring the grounds can begin in earnest. “I think the biggest thing is making sure that the community understands what we're trying to do - to provide them a history base especially for the school aged kids when they come out, we'll be able to bring them into the community center.”

He hopes the cemetery will not only benefit the families of those interred there, but also serve as a historical resource for generations to come.

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