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Stories from the Cemeteries

This fall, plenty of professors will be sending their students to the library, but one faculty member plans to send his kids into the cemeteries of Richmond to learn more about the city’s past.   He’s sharing the information with the public through a website and podcasts.

Millions of people have lived and died in Richmond, but Virginia’s history books tell few of their names and stories.  

“Not everybody leaves behind a lot of diaries and letters, and so sometimes the gravestone is all we have.”
That’s Ryan Smith, an associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University.    He sends students into Richmond’s cemeteries to study the size, location, inscriptions and symbols on gravestones. 

A cross, of course, marks a Christian grave, but …

“That 6-pointed star, the so-called Star of David, really wasn’t a Jewish symbol until about the turn of the 20th century.”

Students are assigned to find topics in the cemeteries – to write papers or produce podcasts about the people buried there.  One student, for example, wrote extensively about a doctor without a degree – a man named Chris Baker who served the Medical College of Virginia for decades.

“He was notorious around town as what we would call a grave robber providing the anatomical specimens that MCV was using to train its students.  He’s a black man, but at the same time he’s preying upon African-American graves.  He’s forced to live, for his own safety, in the Egyptian Building of the Medical College of Virginia’s campus.”

Another student , Scott Seal, read up on the Shockoe Hill Cemetery where many of Richmond’s notable figures were buried.  One was Peter Francisco – a famous fellow in his time and someone Seal had never heard of.

“He showed up on the docks here in Virginia as a kid, and he didn’t speak English, and so nobody really knows where he came from.  Somebody can and picked him up off the dock and made him an indentured servants, and so at 15 or 16 he enlisted in the army to get off of that farm.”

He stood well over six feet tall and so strong that he came to be known as the Giant of Virginia.  Legend had it he was also fearless in battle.

“He was wounded five times.  He was involved in a lot of important battles.   George Washington is actually on record from that time saying that Peter Francisco was responsible for the entire success of the revolutionary war.”

And at Richmond’s National Cemetery, Professor Smith’s students discovered a Spanish War veteran.

Amos Monroe Gravestone

“I had a group of students pick out one African-American soldier, Amos Monroe, and told his life story, how he migrated to Richmond, served in Cuba, came home, was married, and so now it’s so exciting to be able to offer to the public just one of these stories among the many stones of those veterans there that we might otherwise miss.”

Women were also unsung, although volunteers recently erected new gravestones to honor girls killed in a munitions factory explosion  during the Civil War.  Among them, Mary Ryan.

“Who was an Irish woman -- 18 or 19 years old at the time of the explosion, and she lived for a day or so after the explosion, and so there was a little bit of newspaper coverage of her more so than some of the other girls who died.”

Student Hayden Hodges ended up writing about an entire burial ground – the Oakwood Cemetery.  It was never as famous as the Hollywood Cemetery, but it was fairly controversial.

“There’s a lot of scandal at the cemetery during the 19th century.  Two of the superintendents of the cemetery were fired – the first due to embezzling.  The second was over a huge issue where bodies from the  paupers’ section of the cemetery were being stolen and sent to MCV, sent all over the country I’m sure – to UVA and up and down the East Coast.”

These stories are shared on a website – Richmond Cemeteries– and Professor Smith hopes maybe some of the podcasts could be assembled to create audio tours for people visiting the final resting places of little known Richmond residents. 

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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