For the Forgotten African-American Dead
Written by Brian Palmer, January 7th, 2017
Richmond, Va. — To get to East End Cemetery in Henrico County, Va., an abandoned African-American graveyard, my wife, Erin, and I drive through a predominantly black Richmond neighborhood — our neighborhood. Decades of neglect have turned this once beautiful burial ground into woodland. We’re part of a volunteer effort that has reclaimed about two and a half of East End’s 16 acres since it began in 2013.
Thick, tangled vegetation has swallowed headstones and grave markers. The chest-high spring and summer growth is gone or going, so we’re left with the year-round die-hards that have grown every which way over the decades — English ivy, brambles, privet. Chinese sumac sprouts everywhere and has grown tree-high and tree-thick, competing with and winning against cedar and oak. Beneath it, we find pockets of illegally dumped trash. We also find headstones, fragments and corners of which Erin spots beneath the carpet of ivy. I tend to find them with my feet, by tripping over them.
Even sections we call “clear” will look scruffy and forlorn to people accustomed to manicured cemeteries. There is no lawn, just a patchwork — weeds, dead brown leaves, bare earth. Headstones are cracked, askew, even shattered, by nature or by vandals. Encroaching tree roots have buckled and broken concrete curbs that once enclosed family plots.
Brian Palmer is a photographer, a writer and an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on January 8, 2017, on Page SR2 of the New York edition with the headline: For the Forgotten African-American Dead
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