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Drone helps researchers find unmarked graves at East End Cemetery

A drone has helped discover thousands of graves sites at the East End Cemetery.
Published: Jun. 13, 2022 at 6:32 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - An eye in the sky is now helping researchers at the University of Richmond and VCU find unmarked graves at an African American cemetery.

The unique and low-cost approach is happening in Richmond’s East End Cemetery. It’s a project that could be replicated across the south to help reclaim historically under-funded and neglected black cemeteries.

The enduring silence of Richmond’s East End Cemetery is often broken by the sounds of discoveries. Volunteers have been raking or sweeping away brush, leaves and debris for years, pushing through the brush to find the forgotten burial sites of Black Americans.

Now there’s a new hum uncovering history -- a drone flying high above to see thousands of unmarked graves, engulfed by time and at times purposeful neglect.

“This was a community whose history was basically chopped up by Jim Crow and this project helps put all of that together,” said Brian Palmer.

The project is a team effort from the University of Richmond and VCU.

“I just don’t think that we can understand the history of Richmond without looking at a site like this. And that’s become especially apparent as this site has emerged for us over the past five or ten years,” said Dr. Ryan Smith, a professor of history at VCU.

They’ve developed a simpler and cheaper way to use drone technology and geospatial mapping software to find long-lost gravesites.

“There’s a lot of sites that they don’t have a marker. They don’t have a headstone. They are still covered and overgrown. This technology allows us to see and hopefully will allow people who take care of the cemetery to preserve those spaces,” said Dr. Stephanie Spera, a University of Richmond professor of geography and the environment.

Founded in 1897 by a private association of leading Black citizens, the cemetery would grow to span 16 acres and hold an estimated 15,000 burials.

“We couldn’t walk here. Some families would periodically come here and clean up their graves,” said Palmer.

The cemetery never received public money for upkeep and the ravages of time took its toll. As the drone shows from above, a forest grew around and through it.

“We’ve gone through this area, over and over again,” Palmer shows as he walks through the cemetery.

Through the years, Palmer and the volunteer group Friends of East End Cemetery uncovered around 3,300 gravesites-- mostly by hand. This new approach that uses a drone has already helped identify at least another 8,000 gravesites.

“We find headstones that have been obscured or buried because of soil erosion, because of the growth of roots or vines. They’ve been swallowed up by the earth,” said Palmer.

The drone creates a 3D model of the earth’s surface. The drone is several hundred dollars. It’s not very expensive. It flies over the cemetery in a pattern and takes photographs. Then those photos are brought back down and put into a computer where researchers look for depressions in the ground. They’re trying to identify where someone may be buried.

“What the drone does is it helps us show on the landscape itself where a lot of the unmarked burials were. And so now we can see the pattern of burials and see the development of the cemetery in a brand new way,” said Smith.

For instance, a GIS technique allows the researchers to map where water would pool up in the depressions of the vegetation-covered landscape.

“We’re flying over a few other sites in Richmond to see if we can apply that technique here and where the methods are all online. Anyone can anyone at all can use them,” said Spera.

The research was recently published in the International Journal of Historical Archaeology. They’re hoping it will help others reclaim history across the south.

“Retrieving these headstones that have been buried for 30, 40, 50 years, it’s like a visceral victory,” said Palmer.

Ultimately each new discovery is added to an online database so anyone across the country can find a person who links to their past.

“That neighborhood story becomes a community story. That community story becomes a city story. And then that becomes a national story. An American story,” said Smith.

Copyright 2022 WWBT. All rights reserved.

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