Virginia Church Working to Restore Old Black Graveyard

BOB BROWN Wilbert Lawrence Jr. cleans up the burial plot of Willie Starks. “The biggest thing is getting the ivy off the graves,” he said.
Wilbert Lawrence Jr. cleans up the burial plot of Willie Starks. “The biggest thing is getting the ivy off the graves,” he said.

A forested hill slopes toward a small stream between Connecticut and New York avenues in Glen Allen. A fading dirt road encircling the hill would link to Brook Road and New York Avenue if it were not roped off.

Beer cans and other debris from Brook Road are tangled in the underbrush. Yard waste is piled adjacent to the New York Avenue entrance. Broken tree branches hang precariously or have fallen across graves, paths and roads. Piles of gravel, perhaps planned for a resurfacing of the perimeter road, have sat idle to the point that they have nearly been swallowed by vegetation.

The 2-acre property tucked behind homes and Biltmore Baptist Church is Anderson Cemetery, a black graveyard dating to at least 1867, according to deeds. The historical ministry of nearby Mount Olive Baptist Church, which also is organizing a Friends of Anderson Cemetery group, seeks to restore conditions at the site.

English ivy, which long ago escaped its ornamental containers, runs rampant across the graveyard.

Visitors are urged to wear boots and carry walking sticks to keep their footing in the veiled terrain and as some defense from snakes slithering among the ivy’s low leaves. Almost all other forms of plant life have been choked out by the ivy, which is wrapped around many of the trees. In places, it is so thick, it is nearly impossible to distinguish between a fallen tree, old cast iron fencing and low concrete walls surrounding some family plots.

“The biggest thing is getting the ivy off the graves,” said Wilbert Lawrence Jr., a member of Mount Olive’s historical committee.

All of the trustees of the old Anderson Cemetery League have died, said committee member Deloris Lawson. Records of them from the 1940s indicated that the youngest trustee would now be older than 100, she said.

Without trustees, the cemetery grew neglected. Often, graveyards have funds held in a trust for the perpetual care of the site, according to the Sterling-based International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association.

Some older cemeteries did not have such a fund. In Richmond, for example, a perpetual care fund was not required until the early 1900s, and already established cemeteries, such as Evergreen in the city’s East End, were not required to create one.

In these cases, the maintenance of the cemetery was divided among the families who bought plots. As people grew older, died, moved away, could not afford upkeep or believed perpetual care was included, many graveyards fell into disrepair.

“It’s a sad thing to see this happen,” said Lawson, standing among the deliberately planted trees that shade Anderson Cemetery, the ivy that is working to smother it, and the slender sassafras and other trees attempting to gain a foothold.

The Friends group is researching the possibility of establishing new trustees and then turning over the cemetery to Mount Olive to aid in caring for the site.

“That’s our main goal — to reclaim it, to restore it, to enhance it,” Lawson said.

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Source: Richmond Times Dispatch | ELLIOTT ROBINSON