This hike will make you sad and angry. You will learn about a true local hero who needs your help, and finally, it will warm your heart.
Richmond has an abundance of fabulous places to hike and so much to learn of the people and events from our history. There is one place, however, that above all the others I most want my 1,350+ James River Hikers, and all Richmonders, to experience.
That place is Evergreen Cemetery.
It is located just east of Oakwood Cemetery and north east of the intersection of Stony Run Parkway and East Richmond Road. We get there on foot at the turnaround point of a ten-mile hike that begins at Chapel Island, treks through the best of Church Hill, explores the resting place of some seventeen thousand Confederate soldiers at Oakwood Cemetery and ends with lunch at Poe’s Pub. You’ll find the hike here http://www.meetup.com/James-River-Hikers/events/152753102/ where it is next scheduled for Jan. 26, 2014.
Evergreen Cemetery is the most prominent of the “Four Cemeteries at Evergreen” that also includes East End Cemetery, Oakwood Colored Section and Colored Pauper’s Cemetery.
The first of these we’ll see is Colored Pauper’s Cemetery, maintained by Richmond’s Police Department and located just on the Richmond side of the Henrico County line. You’ll learn some Richmond history not widely known when you read from the monument there, “Between 1895 and 1896, many infants and children between the ages of 3 and 12 died as a result of poor nutrition and childhood diseases. More than 500 infants and children, many of whom resided in the city streets, orphanages, asylums and hospitals were laid to rest here.”
From there we’ll hike to Evergreen Cemetery, established in 1897, the resting place for some of our nation’s most prominent leaders and pioneers who happened to be African Americans. Its cascading hills were graced with concrete walking paths, cobblestone roads, marble statues, granite obelisks and elegant monuments, much like at the more well known Hollywood Cemetery.
Among the many notables buried there are: Sarah Garland Boyd Jones (1865–1905) the first black person and first woman to be certified to practice medicine in Virginia; Maggie Lena Walker (1867-1934) the first woman to serve as president of a bank in the United States; John Mitchell Jr. (1863-1929) Editor of the Richmond Planet, civil rights leader, member of the Richmond City Council, founder of the Mechanics Savings Bank, and candidate for Governor of Virginia.
But there was a fatal flaw from Evergreen’s inception when there was no allowance for perpetual care, and later financial problems led to bankruptcy. The reality today is that most of Evergreen Cemetery has been reclaimed by the forest.
There is a consistent visceral response from hikers their first time at Evergreen. When their gazing, searching eyes locate part of an emerging gravestone reaching out from the thick vines of the undergrowth, they are at first perplexed at how this abomination could have happened and how it is even now allowed to be. This is followed by sadness, sometimes anger, and a quest for what can be done to correct this wrong.
That brings us to the hero in this story, John Shuck, who has dedicated himself to the seemingly impossible task of standing up to both the tangled bureaucratic morass of jurisdictions, owners and others as well as to the unrelenting onslaught of nature determined to swallow up the history of those buried there. John has taken it on as a personal mission to restore dignity to the Four Cemeteries at Evergreen. Most weekends you’ll find him laboring with whatever volunteers he can muster. This week it may be students from VCU, a church group, friends and family or anyone else willing to wield a pruner, shovel or rake and make piles of the debris.
What began as a typical Sunday-morning hike this past October turned into the most special moment in the two and a half year history of James River Hikers — Hiking With History. Some months before, on this same hike, James River Hiker Angela commented that her grandparents were buried at Evergreen Cemetery, and she had never been able to find the graves.
What followed was a demonstration that we are something more that a collection of locals who enjoy hiking and history. A subgroup banded together to find Angela’s grandparents graves. The effort began with researching through archives and consulting with John Shuck.
Then came the hard manual labor of searching for the graves. Eureka, they were found! Next was the clearing of a path to the site and removal of the half century plus of vegetation and soil that had consumed it.
On October 6, 2013, Angela, for the first time in her life, visited the graves of her grandparents. Those who witnessed the moment will forever cherish it. Angela committed that never again would these graves be surrendered to the forest.
Join us on our next hike to Evergreen Cemetery, and see for yourself why this, as much as any other in Richmond, is a place we all need to experience. Better yet, assemble your group or individually plan a Saturday morning with John Shuck. Become part of the solution in restoring dignity to Evergreen and reclaiming an important part of our heritage. You’ll be a better person for it.