To develop a firm grasp of Richmond's history, the most illuminating destination may not be the river, the statehouse, the battlefield or the museum.
It may be the cemetery, where the living take instruction from the dead. These final resting places contain hidden histories and provide an edifying glimpse of how Richmond's past informs its present.
Increasingly, residents, scholars and even tourists are taking notice: They cite a burgeoning desire by individuals to unearth their roots through genealogy or learn more about their community through the deceased who populated it.
"It’s like cemeteries are all coming alive right now for Richmond and other localities, too," author and historian Alyson L. Taylor-White said. "People are discovering that the dead do tell tales."
Richmond Region Tourism lists several historic cemeteries on its website, including Hollywood, Hebrew, the African Burial Ground, Shockoe Hill and St. John's Church (Richmond's first official graveyard). Its 2018 regional visitors guide features Hollywood and the African Burial Ground.
"It’s a perfect time for cemeteries. And Richmond’s a wealth of riches in that regard: We are sitting on top of a gold mine of necropolises," said Taylor-White, author of "Shockoe Hill Cemetery: A Richmond Landmark History."
Professors and students at local universities are conducting field work at key burial grounds and creating digital histories. Volunteers are bringing new life to neglected spaces. Visitors are exploring Richmond's past – or their own – in historic settings that few cities can match.
What drives the living to want to spend so much time among the dead?
Volunteer and advocate John Shuck has led the way in rejuvenating Evergreen and East End cemeteries, two historic – and long-neglected – African-American burial grounds.
"What I hear most, and is probably the most visceral, is the thrill of discovery – of finding the marker and then maybe finding a bit of history about the person," Shuck said.
"You can go there and cut and pull back vines and brush and uncover a grave marker which maybe hasn't seen the light of day for 50 years," he said. "I think many of us harbor amateur archaeologists or historians inside us, and volunteering at the cemetery satisfies those inner desires."
Of course, such discovery proves how Richmond's story of interment is not entirely uplifting: Unimpressed by lifetime achievement, its burial grounds reflect social divides that persisted long after death.
Hollywood Cemetery, created in 1847 along the banks of the James River, represents both the gold standard and the embodiment of inequity.
Inspired by a visit to Mount Auburn cemetery near Boston, Richmonders William Haxall and Joshua Fry decided to create a similar burial ground in Richmond. With 40 subscribers, they started what would become Hollywood Cemetery Co., according to the cemetery website. John Notman of Philadelphia, a noted landscape architect, was enlisted to design the cemetery, which was named for its abundance of holly trees.
Former President James Monroe was reburied there in 1858 in an elaborate cast-iron reliquary that came to be known as "the birdcage." Former President John Tyler was interred there in 1862, though without the recognition typically afforded a former president: He was a member of the Confederate House of Representatives at the time.
In that regard, Tyler has plenty of company, including Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gens. J.E.B. Stuart and George Pickett. A 90-foot pyramid, fashioned with stacks of James River granite, was created in 1869 by the ladies of the Hollywood Memorial Association to honor 18,000 Confederate soldiers.
Other notables buried there include author James Branch Cabell, physician and educator Hunter Holmes McGuire, and former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr.
"Hollywood is certainly among the nation's most significant cemeteries, on a number of levels," said Ryan Smith, a history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University whose website, Richmond Cemeteries, is a tool for research and self-guided tours.
"It has rare natural beauty, a striking array of national figures, influential monument designs ... prime gardens and arbors, as well as a storied history of struggle and innovation of its own," he said. That included Hollywood's near failure upon its founding and its role in fostering Confederate memorial traditions after the Civil War.
Smith said Hollywood's range of features puts it in the company of notable burial grounds nationally, including Arlington National Cemetery in Northern Virginia, Mount Auburn near Boston, Philadelphia's Laurel Hill, Brooklyn's Green-Wood and Forest Lawn in Los Angeles.
He noted that the cemetery, with an endowment in the tens of millions of dollar, began counting automobiles entering its gates several years ago. It tallied 200,000 over nine months.
Evergreen Cemetery, which dates to 1891, was supposed to be the black Hollywood.
Its luminaries include pioneering businesswoman Maggie L. Walker, crusading newspaper editor John Mitchell Jr. and Sarah Garland Jones, the first black person and first woman to be certified to practice medicine by the Virginia State Board of Medicine.
At neighboring East End Cemetery, notables include educator and civic leader Rosa L. Dixon Bowser and Dr. Richard F. Tancil, who rose from enslavement to become a successful doctor and founder of the Nickel Savings Bank.
But both burial grounds fell into decline as they mirrored the struggles of African-Americans after the Civil War and well into the 20th century. Choked and covered by foliage, the cemeteries became targets of vandalism and a dumping ground for furniture, appliances and other refuse.
Gravestones at East End were toppled, stolen or buried – the Tancil marker has vanished. At Evergreen, the Braxton family crypt (the only mausoleum at the cemetery) has frequently been breached – and once was used to shoot footage for a sexually explicit horror video.
Over time, care of the burial grounds had dwindled to nonexistent, but "this idea that the money ran out and people neglected the place [is] the superficial story," said Brian Palmer, co-author (with his wife) of "The Afterlife of Jim Crow: East End & Evergreen in Photographs."
He noted a form of "engineering" that was happening for many decades after the Civil War.
"White cemeteries were helped, they were subsidized, they were put on a trajectory to success, they were protected," he said. "And African-American cemeteries had to be supported by the African-American community because no public funds went their way."
But as that community was trying to build itself up, "Jim Crow was tearing it down," Palmer said, by limiting the ability to accumulate wealth or political power through voting.
Of the Confederate statues on Richmond's famous avenue, he said: “The same processes that erected those monuments – that subsidized Hollywood, that continue to subsidize Confederate cemeteries – neglected these places."
(Beyond neglect, there was even the desecration of bodies. Black and pauper cemeteries were robbed to supply cadavers for medical training at the Medical College of Virginia during the 1800s and early 1900s.)
Within the past decade, though, a volunteer reclamation effort has focused renewed attention on the African-American burial grounds and their storied, if troubled, histories.
In 2015 alone, more than 1,500 tires were removed from East End, according to Erin Hollaway Palmer, a member of the volunteer group Friends of East End.
Brian Palmer recalls Dec. 13, 2014, the first day he and his wife visited East End to shoot video for a documentary on the neglect of black cemeteries. They encountered a group of men in camouflage who were hunting deer.
"They parked their trucks at Evergreen, and they were wandering around in East End," Palmer said. "And I said to one of the guys, 'You know, there's going to be some Boy Scouts out here helping to clean up East End Cemetery.'
"They didn’t seem to be terribly concerned. They just told me to get off the road ... so they could shoot deer – in a cemetery."
In 2016, there appeared to be a breakthrough in the state's disparate treatment of the dead.
The Virginia Outdoors Foundation allocated $400,000 from its preservation trust fund to secure conservation easements at East End and Evergreen. The easements prevent commercial and industrial development and require public access in perpetuity. The nonprofit Enrichmond Foundation was enlisted to coordinate the conservation effort.
During the 2017 session of the General Assembly, legislation sponsored by Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, made black cemeteries established before Jan. 1, 1900, eligible for the same maintenance monies long provided by the state to Confederate gravesites. That amounts to about $35,000 annually at Evergreen and East End.
In May 2017, Enrichmond acquired Evergreen from the Entzminger family with plans to conserve, clear, maintain and map the cemetery and record grave information. On its website, it describes the acquisition of Evergreen as its "first step in bringing the 'Four Cemeteries of Evergreen' (Evergreen, East End, Colored Paupers and Oakwood Colored Paupers Section) under one coordinated restoration effort."
That "one coordinated restoration effort" objective has been a sticking point, and the process has not been seamless.
The Friends of East End group wants written assurance that it will be able to continue its restoration work at the cemetery, and it has sought a planning and decision-making role for itself and the families of people buried there.
Long before Evergreen and East End, there was the African Burial Ground – the earliest known black cemetery in Richmond. Located roughly at 15th and Broad streets, it was near a public gallows, the notorious Lumpkin's Slave Jail and the then-exposed Shockoe Creek.
Used as a burial ground from about 1750 to 1816 – Gabriel was buried there after his execution in 1800 for leading an unsuccessful insurrection of slaves – the property is believed to contain one of the nation's oldest municipal cemeteries for enslaved and free blacks.
But graves were rudimentary, with scant and impermanent markings. Richmond’s black residents protested the conditions.
In 1815, free black residents organized to purchase a new burial ground in North Side at the site of what is now Barton Heights Cemeteries, according to the Richmond Cemeteries website. The following year, the city opened another black graveyard on Shockoe Hill, signaling the end for the African Burial Ground.
Two centuries later, any visible evidence of the burial ground is covered by layers of subsequent development, including the construction of Interstate 95 during the 1950s and the surfacing of a parking lot in the 1970s.
In 2008, VCU purchased the parking lot with plans to repave it, which sparked three years of protests by local activists and historic preservationists. In 2011, VCU abandoned the plan, the asphalt was lifted, and the burial ground property was reclaimed.
"The African Burial Ground, that struggle, was important beyond the cemetery, beyond the desecration of that sacred space," said Shawn Utsey, a VCU professor who produced and directed the documentary “Meet Me in the Bottom: The Struggle to Reclaim Richmond’s African Burial Ground."
"It got people in Richmond engaged – civically, politically, socially – who otherwise may have just been sitting home watching, being an observer, a spectator."
The African Burial Ground was more than a space to ingloriously deposit black bodies. It was a site intended to reinforce their place in society.
VCU's Smith tells the story of a free black woman who chose to be buried on her own property. Two days later, local authorities found out, dug her up and, in full view of the black residents of Richmond, carried her body down to the burial ground to be reburied.
The woman's self-determination of how she would be buried "was a claim to respectability," Smith said. "It was a claim to dignity. And that was not a precedent that the city wanted to be set. So they went so far as to disinter this woman's body to make the point: 'You belong in the Bottom.' "
Here are some notable aspects of other prominent cemeteries in Richmond.
Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy but a city now governed primarily by African-Americans, owns and operates an East End burial ground largely populated by Confederate soldiers.
Oakwood Cemetery was established in 1855, and at the onset of Civil War, it took in Confederate and Union dead. At war's end, though, Union troops were removed and reinterred at Richmond National Cemetery.
A marker at Oakwood cemetery says it all:
"This ground is the last bivouac of 17,000 Confederate soldiers slain in defence of the South. In gratitude for their devotion the Commonwealth of Virginia by act of the Assembly of 1930 has provided perpetual care for their graves, a sacred trust the city of Richmond reverently has accepted."
In contrast, Richmond National Cemetery was created as a final place for dead Union soldiers.
This cemetery on Williamsburg Road in Fulton Hill is one of seven national cemeteries established in the area in the aftermath of the Civil War. Nearly 6,000 Union troops were given a proper burial there, according to the Richmond Cemeteries website.
Richmond National represents "the very first example of a conscientiously integrated cemetery" in Richmond, said VCU's Smith, author of an upcoming book on the history of burial grounds in Richmond. Among those buried there are United States Colored Troops, whose simple markers are inscribed with "USCT."
The 8-acre cemetery, whose centerpiece is a flagstaff on a mound, has an orderly grid of pristine burial sites with simple white makers. The cemetery is multifaith, with headstones featuring Judaism's Star of David and the Muslim crescent among numerous Christian crosses.
Before the American Revolution, Jews were scattered in Virginia, but Anglican restrictions made the colony less than welcoming, according to Frank Eakin, the Weinstein-Rosenthal professor of Jewish and Christian studies at the University of Richmond.
"In 1786, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was passed, and by 1789, sufficient Jews had come to Richmond that Beth Shalome was established as the sixth synagogue in the country," he said.
Dating to 1816, Hebrew Cemetery – established by Beth Shalome at Fourth and Hospital streets on Shockoe Hill – succeeded the small Franklin Street Burial Grounds (at 21st and East Franklin streets) as the city's primary Jewish cemetery. (Beth Shalome merged with Congregation Beth Ahabah around the turn of the 20th century.)
Hebrew stands out as one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the country – and, with its Southern roots, as a burial ground with a section reserved for 30 Jewish Confederate soldiers.
VCU's Smith took note that the military-themed iron fence, which surrounds the cemetery's Confederate section, "may be one of the first general memorials raised to Confederate memory in the city, outside individual gravestones."
Installed in 1868 by the Hebrew Ladies Memorial Association, it preceded Hollywood Cemetery's memorial pyramid by a year, he said. (And for further context, the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue was not unveiled until 1890.)
The establishment of Mount Calvary Cemetery in the 1880s, a short distance west of Hollywood Cemetery on a bluff above the James River, reflected the growing size and prosperity of Richmond's Catholic community, according to the Richmond Cemeteries website.
The earliest Catholic burial ground, St. Joseph Cemetery, was known earlier as Bishop's Cemetery, according to a history from the Diocese of Richmond. Dating to 1858, it was later the site of St. Joseph’s Church. (When that Jackson Ward parish closed in 1969, the graves were moved to Holy Cross Cemetery and Mount Calvary.)
Holy Cross, established in 1874, was originally known as St. Mary's, after a parish that served Richmond's German Catholic community, according to the diocese history. (It formally incorporated as Holy Cross in 1924.)
"The Catholic population begins to become substantial at the end of the 19th century, and they’re thinking Holy Cross is going to be too small," Smith said of the 10½-acre burial ground at First and Daniels streets, at the south end of Richmond's Highland Park neighborhood.
The diocese purchased nearly 70 acres for Mount Calvary in 1885. Smith said the move was prompted largely by a trend toward more burial ground opulence, as seen in the nearby Hollywood Cemetery.
Discrimination did not appear to be a factor in the creation of Mount Calvary, as Catholics were permitted in such early Richmond burial grounds as St. John's churchyard before establishing cemeteries of their own. (To this day, you can distinguish the few Catholic graves at St. John's by the presence of crosses. "Protestants were not using the cross until 1830s and '40s," Smith said.)
Mount Calvary is now open to all faiths.
Woodland Cemetery, the final resting place of fiery orator the Rev. John Jasper, is also among the African-American burial grounds that fell into neglect during the Jim Crow era. It came to renewed attention decades later when one of Richmond's revered native sons died.
In February 1993, the family of tennis champion, author and humanitarian Arthur Ashe Jr. prepared to bury him next to his mother, Mattie. But they found Woodland to be overrun with trees, underbrush and weeds, and it was dotted with overturned gravestones. Discarded appliances and trash littered the area near the cemetery's entrance.
At the behest of then-City Councilman Roy A. West, about 40 city and state workers descended on the isolated private cemetery that straddles the city line in eastern Henrico County. The cleanup aimed to provide a dignified burial for Ashe, 49, and avoid international embarrassment.
Five months after his death, on what would have been Ashe's 50th birthday, a bronze marker was dedicated at his gravesite during a ceremony attended by former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, poet Maya Angelou, then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and former Davis Cup teammates Donald Dell and Charlie Pasarell.
One tale involving the oldest city-owned cemetery shows that Richmond's walls of postmortem segregation were not impenetrable.
Shockoe Hill Cemetery dates back to 1822. Its most famous occupant is John Marshall, the longest-serving chief justice in U.S. history. Other notables include Edgar Allan Poe's foster parents, Revolutionary War hero Peter Francisco, first Richmond Mayor William Foushee and Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew, whose marker reads:
"She risked everything that is dear to man – friends, fortune, comfort, health, life itself, all for the one absorbing desire of her heart – that slavery might be abolished and the Union preserved."
But the cemetery also was noteworthy for two grudging exceptions to its rule that those buried there be "free, white and from Richmond," according to Taylor-White's book on Shockoe Hill. Two women of color – Lucy Taylor and Lucy Armstead – were permitted to be buried there.
The book includes a news clip from a Jan. 4, 1896, edition of the Richmond Planet noting that the burial of Armstead about a week earlier created quite a stir.
"DID NOT WANT TO BURY HER" was the headline on a story that describes "much excitement" at the "white aristocratic burial ground" because Mary Woodbridge, who was nursed by Armstead – a family servant – "insisted upon having her interred in the family section."
It was decided that since the Woodbridge family owned their section of the cemetery, they could not be prevented from burying Armstead there, despite the protestations of the superintendent of the poor.
Her burial was officiated by the Rev. James H. Holmes, pastor of the First Baptist Church, "the only colored minister ever known to have acted in this capacity since the cemetery was opened," the Planet article said.
Armstead gave her last age as 116.