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Interview with John Sydnor: Evergreen Cemetery

Published on June 1, 2017

We sat down with our Executive Director, John Sydnor, to discuss Enrichmond’s recent acquisition of Evergreen Cemetery, next steps, and plans for the future.

What is Enrichmond?
The Enrichmond Foundation was formed in 1990 by the City of Richmond’s Parks Advisory Board. The impetus to establish a park foundation was to protect Belle Isle from large scale residential development and open the island to the public. Over our 26-year history we have acted as the fiscal agent for over 130 “Friends” groups and special projects driven by community-based volunteer efforts. Our past land protection projects have included the conservation of Vauxhall Island in the James River, establishment of the James River Park Conservation Easement, as well as working with our Friends groups to create public open spaces and amenities – places like Scuffletown Park and Stockton Community Garden. Our focus has always been on creating and/or preserving public space assets that serve all of Richmond’s residents.

I thought you guys only dealt with parks?
Enrichmond and our neighborhood volunteer groups do amazing work in the City’ parks. But we support multiple public and open space efforts throughout the City. These include cemeteries, community gardens, street trees, pop-up parks, playgrounds, trails, farmers markets, dog parks, amphitheaters, and historic structures. When you consider our experience and role as a community nonprofit, we are an ideal entity to manage the repair, preservation, and protection of the four “Cemeteries of Evergreen” for the next generation.

For the past few years, volunteer groups have coordinated efforts to clean up the cemeteries – do you plan to utilize volunteer groups at Evergreen?
Definitely! There is no question that almost all of the maintenance progress to-date has been accomplished by devoted and tireless volunteers. What’s amazing about this acquisition and Enrichmond’s ownership is that now we can provide dedicated, paid staff support to ensure that volunteer efforts culminate in a fully preserved cemetery that is completely open and accessible to the public. We not only bring 26 years of working with our Friends groups and community projects – all volunteer based – but our team includes a Volunteer Coordinator to recruit volunteers to Evergreen and we will be bringing on a full-time Caregiver dedicated to the cemeteries.

Did you work with the volunteer coordinators at the cemeteries before the acquisition? Can you speak to how you might work with them moving forward?
Yes, in fact, the Friends of East End and Friends of Evergreen groups are former Friends groups of ours, under our fiscal sponsorship. We worked with them for almost two years providing administrative support, help coordinating their volunteer efforts, securing State funds, and engaging in community partnerships. They have recently incorporated into their own, independent nonprofit groups and we commend them for taking that step! As we move forward, we will work with them as we will with the families of those interred, community organizations, and anyone who wants to volunteer, to assist in delivering a safe, organized volunteer maintenance effort. We’re excited to have many community members and volunteer groups collaborating with us on this effort – it would not be possible without them!

How will Enrichmond be maintaining these properties?
The maintenance of the properties is, of course, one of our biggest tasks. Our intent is to leverage our local and state-wide partnerships, fundraising, passionate volunteers, and professional network of experts to elevate maintenance work. We will continue working with the volunteers and volunteer organizations that have been in the cemeteries, but enhance their work with tools, equipment, training, storage, and supplies on site. Over the coming months, our Volunteer Coordinator and Evergreen Caregiver will work together to coordinate regularly scheduled professional maintenance, as well as multiple volunteer efforts. One of our early goals is to build a volunteer and maintenance barn with meeting and educational spaces, bathrooms, and showers.

It’s essential for us to provide a coordinated effort of volunteer and professional maintenance to ensure that the property is correctly and safely restored. We have many considerations to take into account in order to prevent further damage at the site. This includes brush and tree removal or maintenance, erosion control, trash removal and disposal – not to mention finding, recording, and properly preserving headstones and grave sites. In the long term, in order to restore the cemeteries’ 70+ acres, we will need to raise significant funds for preservation and to provide for regular, long-term maintenance.

What are your short-term and long-term plans?
Our short-term goal is to secure – as best we can – the properties from after-hours trespassing, vandalism, and dumping. Another immediate goal is to create a detailed database of people who contact us seeking burial site location information or volunteer opportunities. Our long-term goals center on a master plan currently in development by the Chicora Foundation – an experienced and respected cemetery preservation organization – out of South Carolina. We coordinated Chicora’s initial site review of the cemeteries in February 2017 with Virginia Outdoors Foundation, Friends of Evergreen, and Friends of East End. What an amazing day on site. The ultimate goal is a detailed master-plan for preservation. This plan will evaluate current conditions, categorize and record burial sites, propose rehabilitation procedures, prioritize needs, and deliver a multi-year plan of action steps in the cemeteries. We will be announcing many partnerships to make sure this plan becomes a reality. A brief list of these include the City of Richmond, Richmond Public Schools, The Valentine, National Park Service, Ancestry.com, Library of Virginia, Richmond Slave Trail Commission, and many, many more.

Why would Enrichmond want to own a cemetery?
That’s a great question. A cemetery serves many purposes and plays multiple roles in a community – and Evergreen is an incredible example of the potential of such a place. It is not only a sacred space, but a historic place, a park, a community gathering space, and an essential representation of the people of Richmond. Enrichmond’s mission is to serve the people, parks, and public space of the City of Richmond through citizen involvement, education, and fundraising. We believe in serving all Richmonders, in every corner of the City, by providing and preserving public land assets. The Cemeteries of Evergreen are extraordinary in many ways, but for us they represent a coalescing of everything we do, every day of the year for the last 26 years. Historic preservation, storytelling, fundraising, volunteer engagement, environmental restoration, open and public space making. If you have ever visited or volunteered at Evergreen, East End, or the two Pauper cemeteries, you’ll understand our drive, passion, and commitment to preserving these sites. We are driven to protect the history of the place and the significance of those interred.

You’ve mentioned that the land itself is being protected – what is a “conservation easement”?
The Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF) is the expert here, so I’ll defer to them on specifics. For us, a conservation easement is one of the main tools in our preservation tool kit for the Cemeteries of Evergreen. It is an owner implemented release of certain rights to property to a government agency. In this case, as the owners of Evergreen, we will work with VOF to protect and preserve the environmental and historical aspects of the cemetery for perpetuity. One of the key reasons we raised funds to acquire the property was to protect it from any future commercial development and to keep it open to the public through this conservation easement. By the way, we wouldn’t have been able to get this far in the acquisition process without VOF, their support and passion in protecting these properties. Thank you to Brett, Leslie, and Jason!

What are you going to do for the families who have loved ones interred there?
For over 50 years, the land and burial records of those residing in the Cemeteries of Evergreen have been unavailable or lost to the public. Over the next several years all of the land will be made accessible to visiting families – safe, clean and scenic once again. We have acquired many burial records which will be stored, preserved, and made public to everyone (families and researchers alike) in the Library of Virginia (LVA) and online. This process has already begun, as we’ve delivered several collections of 100-year-old records and maps to the LVA for cleaning and preservation. For the first time in over 50 years, families will be able to find their loved ones interred in the cemeteries, visit them, and celebrate their lives in the beautiful and natural setting of the Cemeteries of Evergreen.

Does Enrichmond have plans to work with the descendants’ community?
Yes, we are eager to hear from families, churches, and other groups who want to be involved in volunteering and finding loved ones. The significance of this site as an African American cemetery and as a cornerstone in the history of Richmond and Virginia is beyond description. We are thrilled to be able to bring Richmond’s African American community and community organizations in to help us preserve this landmark for the whole city. Enrichmond invites and will be reaching out to families, churches, foundations, corporations, local, state and federal agencies, and any community groups that are interested in lending their support to this massive undertaking. We believe this is a community effort that will benefit greatly from responsible and passionate groups. The first opportunity we are scheduling will be our community input meeting with the Chicora Foundation. Depending on when they finish their work in Charleston, SC, they will be returning to Richmond for family and community input sometime near the end of July or early August. Please check our Facebook page for that date, place, and time. Looking forward to it!

 

We look forward to providing updates on Evergreen Cemetery on our website and through social media. Please stay tuned for more information in the coming months. Sign up for our newsletter to receive monthly email updates.