Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Evergreen Cemetery Clean Up Gets a Big Boost

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by Caroline Jackson

The overgrown Evergreen Cemetery is the resting place of Richmond notables like the bank founder Maggie Walker and newspaper man John Mitchell. Recently the Penny Cemetery Fund, National Parks Services and Maggie Walker Governor’s School joined in restoration efforts but the clean up project is ten years in the making.

Veronica Davis first saw the cemetery in 1998 when she got decked out for an event held by the Maggie Walker Historical Foundation where she was working at the time. She had trouble getting out of the Bentley she was dropped off in because the overgrowth was so thick. Davis decided she had to do something.

“If you know me you know I’m not one to sit around and moan and complain. I am one to get actively involved and roll up my sleeves and say how can I help.”

Davis owns a company called Virginia Roots. She uses a portion of the money she gets leading tours of historic African American Sites for the cleanup and she also is in charge of coordinating all restoration efforts at Evergreen.

Because the cemetery was founded before 1917 the owner Isaiah Entziminger of UK Corp is required to maintain roads and sidewalks but not old plots. Instead, families must buy perpetual care packages to have their gravestones cared for. Davis works directly with the owner who she says is doing all he can. He has bought chainsaws for the clean up and provided port-a-potties for workers. Davis says recent articles have made Entziminger out to be negligent, causing a negative backlash that is detrimental to the restoration project.

“We cannot have that. Because you see what happens is it causes animosity not generosity.”

Davis admits bodies have been exhumed from Evergreen and taken to other more maintained cemeteries, a process that can cost around 300 dollars. But she says this time and energy could be spent better by investing in the restoration project or perpetual care.

“It does not matter what type of cemetery it is. I mean come on. That’s been going on for a very long time but what I tell people when their like Miss Davis I’m just gonna move my family I’m like what okay baby let me tell you how much that’s going to cost.”

Davis works with what she calls a “dry spaghetti” budget counting on word of mouth to get volunteers into the dank woods to rip out weeds and clear off plots. Davis says a turning point was three and a half years ago when Bank of America signed on to clean up a plot of land. Two years later when on-site volunteer John Shuck showed up he took over where they left off.

Davis describes Shuck as a godsend. Like many involved in the project, Shuck is interested in geneology. A woman in California is doing research for the project, groups have traveled from as far as Florida to lend a hand, and a woman even made a perfume called Evergreen to help raise funds.

Davis explains why this effort is important.

“It is the black counterpart of the Hollywood cemetery. It’s not just the preservation of the grounds but preservation of the history the grounds hold.”

Despite its historical importance, Shuck explains why it’s hard to get people to come back more than once or twice.

“If you just go out there and look, it’s very daunting. And you’ve got to kind of just put blinders on and look at the area where you’re working.”

Yet in the last month the Penny Cemetery Fund has formed and begun volunteering and they plan to raise funds for the project. Their November 7th clean up was covered by local media and 25 volunteers showed up. Shuck says this is a huge addition to his five or six person team.

“For the year and a half I’ve been working there’s been no one else out there working.”

The Waste Management Associates have donated several trash bins and also gave the restoration effort 2500 dollars last week. The city cleared off East Richmond Road where people had dumped tires, couches and even a dead dog. Two weeks ago, The National Parks Services and the Maggie Walker Governor School also started cleaning up their other plots

Though Davis says these efforts are exciting, a lot of planning is required to coordinate volunteer efforts. These groups are required to present their plans to Davis and the owner has the final word on whether they will be approved to work in the cemetery or not. The cemetery has been scammed in the past. Groups have said they are raising funds for Evergreen that the restoration project never saw.

When asked when she thinks the project will be completed Davis says she doesn’t know. She just knows she’ll be out there even if it takes thirty more years or until the end of her life. With a new volunteer group promising to bring on a landscaping crew, more volunteers, and Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson the project is looking at rosier times but she’s somewhat skeptical.

“If that comes to fruition I’d like to say next year at this time.”

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