Martin Luther King Day is a national day of service and for the past few years volunteers have worked alongside the descendants of those buried in a neglected historical African American Cemetery in Richmond to restore it to its former glory.
The graves in Evergreen Cemetery are barely visible, wrapped in tree roots, bushes and vines. Concrete and iron railings are twisted and cracked. Markers buried under inches of detritus, headstones tumbled over. The only mausoleum vandalized.
But blood, sweat and tears are slowly, painstakingly, resurrecting the cemetery, established in 1891 by and for African Americans. Its 60 acres contain some 20,000 graves from former slaves to some of Richmond's most famous and accomplished. The majority of markers represent those from a city that once boasted one of the country's largest black middle class.
"This is a dream come true. Believe it or not. Because this has been years in the making. To polish up a gem that one time shined brightly. To see it come to life again is a beautiful thing," says Reverend H. Creed Taylor Jr. His great grandfather, Coleman Smith, was buried here in 1941. Smith was one of the first black store owners in Richmond's historical African American district of Jackson Ward.
Evergreen sits high atop a hill overlooking Richmond. On one of the highest points is the memorial to Maggie L. Walker, the first African American female bank president to charter a bank in the United States.
Viola Osborne Baskerville, whose relatives are also buried here, sits on several boards responsible for restoring the cemetery. "It's designed as if there are rows of step-downs. There's a series of organized paths where you would see family plots, individual plots," as Baskerville describes it. "It was meant be such that you could view the city of Richmond from this point."
That view is being restored, as overgrowth is cut back and a wooded, terraced landscape of headstones is revealed. On this wintry day, in a cleared part of Evergreen, you can see the top of Richmond City Hall.
Below is another cemetery where some 17,000 Confederate soldiers are buried. For decades state funds were used to upkeep those graves. It's only recently that African American graves were provided equal funding.
The story of how Evergreen came to neglect is complicated. Rev. Taylor says it was always meant to be cared for by the descendants of those buried here. "I remember when I was a boy on Memorial Day we came out here, my daddy and us. We would bring lawnmowers and we would meet families and they would bring food. I remember that part. That fried chicken they would have and we would work out here and clean up and swing sickles and at midday they would take a break," Coleman remembered. "And my daddy used to always say, 'don't eat too much boy, you know you have to go back to work.' But it was family, family took care of this."
As years went by and families moved away for better opportunities, fewer people were able to care for the cemetery. J. Maurice Hopkins found a childhood friend's grave here and, though he doesn't have relative buried here, he is heavily invested in the restoration of Evergreen. "Listen, this is nobody's fault but our own. We abandoned this," Hopkins says. "But there's so much history here that we have to put the message out there, 'Come Back Home.'”