NBC12 In-depth: Restoring Evergreen Cemetery

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - For years people have been complaining about the state of an African American cemetery in Richmond's East End. The once sprawling 60-acres of Evergreen Cemetery are now a forest and many of the thousands of graves there are impossible to find.

Evergreen Cemetery was established in 1897 as a burial ground for the African American community. It's estimated at least 5,000 people are buried here. The owner has said it would take millions of dollars to restore it.

The graves of Evergreen are in a word, shameful. Headstones are broken, busted and covered by brush. A mausoleum has repeatedly been broken into and caskets opened. Remains long scavenged by animals and the elements. Evergreen is a forest.

Rachel DePompa: "This didn't always look like this, did it?"

Welford Williams: "No."

Rachel: "No trees, No woods?"

Welford: "Not at all."

Welford Williams, 87, remembers a time when Evergreen looked more like Oakwood Cemetery. Long before Evergreen changed hands several times and even escaped a bankruptcy, long before there were laws requiring funds for future maintenance.

Welford: "Her name was Pearl Williams."

Rachel: "Pearl Williams, and she's buried here?"

Welford: "Hmm hmm, buried right up here."

Williams buried his mother here Dec 28, 1941. It took him years to find her grave again. "I guess I just became accustomed to it. I became accustomed to this being neglected like this," he said.

Over the years, many have taken an interest in the cemetery. John Shuck volunteers through a non profit, Virginia Roots.

"As you can see we need help out here." He and many others come here nearly every Saturday. "We've probably got a little over two acres cleared."

The cemetery is home to many historic African American figures from Richmond. The most famous is probably Maggie Walker, the first female banker in the United States. Her grave could be a tourist site, if only it were easier to find. And for the volunteers who take on this restoration, branch by branch, one yard at a time, it's moments like these that make it worth it.

Welford: "That is her! That is her! I'm sure!" While walking with us, Welford looked down at a grave stone and found his aunt.

Welford: "My father's sister. Used to call her Sissy Lou!"

A long lost relative, come home again.

He kneels and begins wiping her headstone clean. "Hmm hmm, isn't that something?"

If you'd like to volunteer at Evergreen Cemetery, there are volunteer cleanups nearly ever Saturday. The number to call is 757-332-4042.

For more information about Evergreen: http://historiccemeteries.net/Evergreen.aspx

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