Richmond resident works to restore historic African American cemetery

RICHMOND, Va. — Over the summer, the United Nations recognized Richmond’s historic Evergreen Cemetery as a sacred site containing the memories of thousands of formerly enslaved and freed African Americans from the 19th and 20th century.

The cemetery, established in 1891, is home to luminaries such as Maggie Lena Walker, the first black woman in America to charter a bank, and John R. Mitchell Jr., a civil rights pioneer and editor of the Richmond Planet.

Many final resting places had been overtaken by a tangle of trees, brush and kudzu as the site was neglected over the decades. It’s a wrong that Marvin Harris is working to right.

“I tell ya I’m a tough guy, but I teared up when I came out and saw this mess,” said Harris, executive director of the Evergreen Restoration Foundation.

Overgrown trees and vegetation still cover more than half of the 60-acre site, obscuring gravestones. But efforts to restore and maintain the site have gained momentum in the past five years, thanks in large part to the work of Harris and volunteers who have cleared about 20 acres.

As visitors can now enter the site without having to battle vines, thorns and earth, new stewardship and volunteer efforts have given hope that the community can restore a cemetery that in the past has been compared to the illustrious Hollywood Cemetery, where ornate graves of U.S. presidents and Confederate leaders are well-maintained.

“He has sweated through summers and winters in conditions that were pretty beastly at times while keeping his eyes on the goal of returning Evergreen to the glorious African American cemetery that it was designed to be,” said George Nixon, one of Harris’ volunteer partners who began working with him three years ago.

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Harris does not have any relatives buried at the cemetery, but he began working at the site regularly about five years ago in preparation for his high school class’s 50th anniversary.

A 1967 graduate of Maggie L. Walker High School, Harris said he and several classmates had coordinated volunteer efforts to clean up the site in honor of their school’s namesake.

“We realized that basically life had been good to us, that most of us have done well. And we wanted to give back,” he said. “At that time, we knew it was a massive project. But putting it in your brain and coming out here and implementing it are different things.”

Now, he and a team of half a dozen or so volunteers come to the cemetery nearly every Thursday. He said they are still cutting trees, grinding down stumps and removing kudzu using their own tools, fuel and equipment.

Through all that time, Harris has helped to open up the main entrance so that vehicles and volunteers with other organizations that share his foundation’s mission can easily come to help maintain the grounds or rediscover the history and family stories that had been lost to time, vandalism and grave robbing.

Harris estimates that there have been more than 2,000 volunteers who have shared their time helping to restore the site since then. The work has been supported by a variety of grants that have been given in recent years as state officials and nonprofit organizations have sought to create parity after decades of devoting resources to maintain the graves of Confederate soldiers and leaders.

In 2017, the Enrichmond Foundation, an umbrella nonprofit of more than 100 volunteer groups that works closely with the city’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities, took ownership of the site.

Enrichmond, which recently also acquired the smaller East End cemetery that neighbors Evergreen, has been working with Harris as it continues to develop a master plan to guide the restoration effort and determine how the cemetery should look in the future.

With the help of a design consultant, the master planning process is being directed in part by an advisory committee that includes several descendants and volunteers.

Harris is not a member of the committee, but has nonetheless been an integral part of the restoration effort, said John Sydnor, Enrichmond’s executive director.

Sydnor said Harris has been removing trees and other vegetation based on professional management plans that have been developed by the Virginia Department of Forestry. He said Harris’ crew typically works with heavy equipment to remove and cut down trees, while other volunteers Enrichmond oversees clean up the remains.

“They’ve done wonderful work. Marvin and his group have stayed committed,” he said.

At 71, Harris said he has considered stepping away and letting Enrichmond and other volunteer groups take over the work he and his crew have been doing. He said seeing the energy that has manifested at the cemetery in recent years continues to inspire him though.

“I’ve probably wanted to quit three times. I was selfish in my thinking,” he said. “But it’s all about getting this project done. Somebody has to do it.”