“I feel like I can really breathe in here. Like I can finally take a deep breath,” Caroline said as we stood shoulder to shoulder, looking into the thick green forest around us. There was a pungent smell of wet leaves and earth and it was pleasant to inhale. This place had a feeling to it, not only the feeling of being the only two people on a vast property, but there was a feeling of being absorbed by a giant living organism, of being a part of it. Evergreen was embracing us with its grassy arms.
The trees towered over our heads, draped with ivy and other creeping vines that had taken over during the years. We stood on the path in Richmond’s historic African-American cemetery, Evergreen, which is actually a total of four different cemeteries. The path had at some point been a paved road and it was now obscured by weeds and poison ivy, showing little more than a footpath when at one point it could accommodate cars. Any open space between trees was covered with vines, climbing roses that someone had lovingly planted at one time, and lillies that had been planted on top of graves and had taken over during the years. They now created spots of bright orange in the verdant landscape. It was the greenest place I had ever seen, and remarkably beautiful. Evergreen lived up to it’s name. We stood in the muffled woods of the 60 acre cemetery staring in wonder all around us, listening to the drops of water hitting the leaves and birds singing in the tops of the trees. The white sunlight was dappled and barely reached us beneath the canopy and as a result the cemetery felt like a steam bath after the recent rain. My shirt was stuck to my back and shoulders within minutes; my bangs glued themselves to my forehead.
The first day we stayed close to the car, looking around at the tops of headstones peeking through the foliage. Gates and ornate wrought iron fences were woven with weeds and tall grass, making it difficult to see the designs. A large mown path bisected the first part of the cemetery and when we walked down it we saw more and more headstones begin to reveal themselves to us through the plant life. Not only was the place choked with weeds, it was full of burials too. The stones we saw were large and ornate and varied in design. There were supposed to be over 6,000 burials here, and we could see maybe 5% of them.
Part of what protects Evergreen right now is that you’d have to be a damn fool to veer off the path for even a second since you literally can’t see the ground for the weeds. There’s no telling what lives in that place, and there is a water source nearby so it’s the perfect environment for snakes and other wildlife. The other thing protecting it is the presence of volunteers that are trying to restore it bit by bit on regular work days. When people come to a place, vandalism usually stops. Vandals like secrecy and for a long time, this place was essentially that- a secret. While I was in Richmond we asked several people if they had heard of the cemetery and all of them said no. Everyone had heard of Hollywood Cemetery though, known for it’s showy beauty and famous burials. In my opinion this cemetery is just as valuable as a historic resource, but they did not set themselves up for perpetual care when they established the cemetery in 1891. We were standing in the consequences of that decision.
The next morning over omelettes at Ellwood’s we decided to go back. Just for a few minutes we said. Just to see what was at the end of the path. I had heard of a mausoleum on the property and wanted to see if we could find it, plus, I wanted to see any land that the volunteers had been able to clear. The mausoleum had been targeted by vandals several times over the years, starting sometime in the 70’s when the cemetery began to be left to its own devices and people stopped visiting. However, it had been my impression that each time it would be repaired and would continue to be repaired after every act of vandalism.
So we found ourselves surrounded again by the comforting green of the cemetery within a couple of hours, and we walked with purpose. When the woods in front of the path began to clear we were astonished to find that we were on top of a hill and the hill had in fact been cleared. We saw a Madonna…then an angel…then a beautiful obelisk surrounded by conch shells. I recognized some of the names I saw on headstones from my research. Paths led from the main area into the woods, which were filled with headstones and family plots with beautiful markers. Most were almost completely obscured by creeping ivy and small pink roses. It looked like something out of a dream.
We chose a path at random and found ourselves in a kudzu covered field with monuments poking out of the vines here and there. It was vast and beautiful, and the mystery of what lay beneath the green carpet of plants was almost too much for me to bear. I wanted leather gloves and a herd of hungry goats. NOW. Past that was a cleared field that held a large amount of smaller monuments and was very pretty. But no mausoleum. I felt like it was the way we had come and that we’d missed it.
We circled the area slowly one more time and I saw a tiny dirt track that had been carved out of the ivy, leading farther into the woods. The path was hard packed dirt and had clearly been walked sometime recently, and it was slick from the rain. I started down it. After a couple of minutes I looked up to find a green box in the woods. Literally, the entire mausoleum was draped in ivy on 2 sides. Caroline caught up to me and we jumped down to it from the path. It appeared that the stairs were missing, though we later noticed that railing ran next to the structure that we had not observed at the time.
When we got to the front though, things changed. In fact, the whole trip changed. At some point the doors had been removed and the opening had been walled up by concrete block. This had been smashed with a sledgehammer and the coffins inside had been pulled down from their shelves and opened. The hardware had been pulled off and was most likely sold. The remains were most likely gone as well because the coffins had been wrenched open with a crowbar and on one, since they couldn’t get it off the shelf they had gone through the underside of it for the remains. I didn’t look for more than a few seconds. Caroline stood beside me, quiet.
I was nauseous when I turned away, and I was trembling all over. I started rubbing my face with my hands and my skin felt gritty and slick with sweat and tears. I’d started crying. Caroline and I walked quietly back to the car, but on the way we stopped one more time under the tall trees and inhaled deeply.
“Let’s go get a drink,” she said, and we left. I cried more in the car, but Caroline knew exactly what to say to me. I think it’s a gift that mothers have.
Because we were hot and thirsty, and because the wine was cold and delicious, I ended up wobbling around Cary Town for the next hour or so with puffy, dilated eyes and a buzz. At the wine bar we decided that in the fall I would travel back and we would go visit again when some of the foliage had died off. Maybe we could see more. I didn’t know that I’d go look for the mausoleum again, that had just been so sad. It takes tremendous violence to do something like that and it was that knowledge that scared me. I suppose that when the same thing keeps happening and there’s no money and no visitors anyway, then the repairs just stop and people give up. This was a turning point for me and I’m not sure yet what will come of it.
My greatest wish would be to raise a truckload of money for the people working on Evergreen. For the time being, until I figure some things out, you can make a donation and learn more here.
We as human beings determine the value of a place by how we treat it, and I am so grateful for people who want to restore this cemetery to it’s former glory, though even as it is, it’s glorious. If you visit please take the greatest care when on the property.