The Enrichmond Files: The Truth Is in There (Well, At Least Some of It)

by | May 26, 2023 | COMMUNITY NEWS, VIRGINIA POLITICS

Most of the recent news stories about the Enrichmond Foundation have focused on the hundreds of thousands of dollars that went missing after it announced it was dissolving almost a year ago. The vanished funds, which Enrichmond was holding for its 86 community partners, may also be the focus of ongoing state and federal investigations. An untidy heap of internal documents given to the City of Richmond by Enrichmond’s board this spring sheds some light on the nonprofit’s practices — and profound shortcomings as a steward of partner funds and community assets. The files are accessible because Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows citizens to request public records from state agencies, with some exceptions and exemptions. I recently reviewed many of the documents with other members of our cemetery reclamation group, the Friends of East End.

City officials are helping community partners get their money back, saying they need to be “made whole again,” in the words of city council member Stephanie Lynch. This is essential. But this isn’t the only critical task at hand.

Member of the Friends of East End clears Thomas Mitchell’s plot at Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond, VA. February 17, 2017
Thomas Mitchell’s plot at Evergreen Cemetery. April 30, 2023

“While you are making the 86 organizations whole,” said Jarene Fleming, “the descendants must be made whole and our sacred grounds MUST be restored to the community and the city.” Fleming has family buried at East End Cemetery, which was acquired and then abandoned by Enrichmond along with neighboring Evergreen. She’s also a member of the Descendants Council of Greater Richmond Virginia (DCGRVA), a group set up by and for people (myself included) with kin laid to rest in the area’s historic African American burial grounds as well as members of the broader Black community.

Jarene Fleming and family do a Memorial Day cleanup at the family plot. East End Cemetery, Henrico Co., VA. May 30, 2021

This isn’t a request for charity. It’s a plea for government officials to make good on their commitments to these burial grounds in particular, and historic African American cemeteries in general. “It is truly immoral and unconscionable that we would spend money to honor the Confederate dead without making an equal investment to preserve our historic Black cemeteries,” then governor Terry McAuliffe said before he signed the Historical [sic] African American Cemeteries and Graves bill in 2017. “It is the least that we can do to make amends [for] the discrimination that they faced in the community and to protect their rightful place in our Virginia history,” he said.

Then governor Terry McAuliffe at the signing ceremony for the Historical African American Cemeteries and Graves Bill. Virginia State Capitol, Richmond, May 17, 2017

“I’d like to say that we were the first public agency that was willing to make a commitment to these properties,” Brett Glymph, head of the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF), told an audience at a June 2017 public meeting held at the Robinson Theater by the Friends of East End. “No one else wanted to step into the space.” “It was a moral imperative that something be done, and we did it,” she told Style Weekly two years later.

Glymph’s statement begs the question, Did what? We can cut to the chase and focus on the now, or we can examine the seven-year-long rolling train wreck that the VOF-Enrichmond alliance gave us. It includes stonewalling or attacking critics; gaslighting the public through relentless public relations campaigns (Enrichmond had “three marketing firms on monthly contract,” according to minutes from a January 28, 2022, board meeting, found in the Enrichmond files); fielding a haphazard restoration effort at Evergreen and East End; wasting taxpayer money on a project with no comprehensive plan; and committing a succession of ugly mistakes at or related to the cemeteries. (See: Long-time cemetery volunteers suspend work at East End under pressure from Enrichmond; Enrichmond staffer finds exposed human remains, invites reporter to videotape, social media explodes in condemnation; Enrichmond’s executive director takes credit for work he didn’t do; Enrichmond uses 9–11 video for self-promotion, Congressman condemns.)

Evergreen Cemetery, East Richmond Road entrance. April 30, 2023

Mistakes have been made…

As I have written before, many government agencies — local, state, and federal — lavished hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars and public resources on Enrichmond for its experiment at Evergreen and East End. They did so without ever establishing that Enrichmond was up to the task of saving these fragile sites. Henrico County and the City of Richmond offered unqualified support for Enrichmond’s acquisition of East End in 2018 through a limited liability company called Parity.

“I have met with Mr. John Sydnor [Enrichmond’s executive director] and discussed this possibility with him,” Henrico County Manager John Vithoulkas wrote in an August 13, 2018, letter to Virginia’s Attorney General and Richmond City Circuit Court. That court would decide the fate of East End through a receivership process. “He provided the level of confidence that I needed to believe this transition of ownership to Parity LLC will be the best long-term solution to the restoration process. For this reason, I want to offer my support of this change in ownership.”

Richmond’s interim Deputy Chief Administrative Officer, Reginald Gordon, gave a similarly glowing endorsement. “I am confident that Parity has the ability to own and operate the East End Cemetery,” he wrote to the same recipients on August 10. “They are in a unique role to do the work. They have taken the time to engage various community stakeholders in the process of preparing a plan for the restoration of the East End Cemetery. They have demonstrated respect for the history, legacy and restoration. They are perfect for this work.”

Entrance to Evergreen and East End cemeteries. March 17, 2022

While officialdom may have beheld perfection, regular folks saw something else. “Transparency and accountability should accompany expenditures of public money,” the Friends of East End wrote to the Office of Attorney General in a June 5, 2018, letter. “There has been no transparency.”

Descendant Adrienne Gray Rhone, daughter of the last member of the burial association that once owned East End, sent a letter to the presiding judge, Gregory Rupe, in December 2018.

To my understanding, Parity LLC has not detailed a plan to collaborate with families, the community, or volunteers who have a demonstrated long-term commitment. Further, much of what Parity LLC and the Enrichmond Foundation touted as plans and activities in the news media upon the acquisition of Evergreen Cemetery in 2017, have been ongoing for the last five years, including the reclamation cleanup efforts, historical research, restoration and mapping of gravesites. That work has been an unfunded labor of love for many volunteers, including the Friends of East End, a 501(c)(3).

East End Cemetery under the stewardship of Enrichmond. June 11, 2022

More recently, Enrichmond’s BFF in state government, VOF, was helping the nonprofit’s flailing board craft language to spin the public and news media, rather than simply coming clean and providing transparency at long last. “I would focus on the positive,” VOF’s director of community conservation and government relations wrote to members of the Enrichmond board on April 26, 2022. “The public did not know your financial situation before, and it is not needed at this time. That focus may also serve to push more donors away,” he wrote (emphasis added). One would think that a responsible government entity would want to share information with the public and potential donors rather than covering it up. One would think.

Before Enrichmond tanked, Sydnor — whose salary in 2020 was $97,665, according to the nonprofit’s amended IRS filing — estimated it carried over $700,000 in debt. It owed $72,000 for a “capital campaign study,” according to the accounting he gave to the board. Also in that tally of debt was $20,000 for a financial audit, roughly $200,000 owed to the Small Business Administration, and $300,000 in partner funds. There are other debts that slipped his mind, like the $19,000-plus of a nearly $20,000 fee Enrichmond owed to the archaeological firm that extracted human remains from the roots of a tree blown down in a July 2021 storm. “We completed the work, but were only paid a small portion of the contracted amount before Enrichmond collapsed,” said Matt Laird of James River Institute for Archaeology.

A sinking ship has no captain

In an email sent to news media earlier this year, Enrichmond’s board said it noticed “operational irregularities” at the nonprofit only in November/December 2021.

“I think that is false,” said Karyn Vice, the nonprofit’s community projects coordinator from January to August 2021. “Unless you were not paying attention at all, or unless John Sydnor was really lying to them that much and that frequently and able to hide things that well, then November of 2021 is not when they first would have detected it, because there were too many things going on when I was there.”

The board says it was in the dark about how Enrichmond was handling partner funds, according to the minutes of their January 28, 2022, meeting. “Board Members agreed that the current financial state of the organization and the practice of using partner funds for Enrichmond were not known by board members prior to Monday’s audit review. All questioned how these items were missed” (emphasis added).

Really? It took that long to see trouble on the horizon? Enrichmond had reported “net assets w/out donor restrictions” as -$92,186 and “revenue less expenses” as -$366,988 on its 2019 IRS Form 990. These negative numbers should have set off alarms that cash flow might be a problem. And yet according to the same minutes cited above, “[t]he last financial statement approved by the Board of Directors was September 2021. The February 2022 balance sheet reported net income of -$526,321.09.

The Enrichmond files raise another fundamental question that we’d been asking for years: does this board of directors actually direct? “Board & Executive Committee meetings should be re-instituted starting in February 2022,” the board chair wrote in an email to Sydnor (emphasis added). Subject line: “Concerns regarding the current status & health of the Organization.”

Illegally dumped tires gathered by volunteers for disposal at East End Cemetery. April 22, 2015

Looking in the mirror

Seven years ago I made one of the worst decisions of my nearly 30-year career as a journalist: I agreed for a time to have conversations with government officials in private that should have been public. Frustration — and certainly my ego — drove my decision. These officials approached me for my insight and experience, I thought. Actually, I was a squeaky wheel in the machinery of a deal that they wanted done quickly. To that end, I needed oiling. Flattery is a wonderful lubricant.

The deal on the table in 2016 was a potential $400,000 state grant from VOF for restoration efforts at East End and Evergreen. My wife and I had been helping to clear East End of overgrowth and garbage since late 2014. (An intrepid band of volunteers had launched the cleanup in summer 2013.) Successive volunteer groups had worked for years to reclaim neighboring Evergreen, but the task at both cemeteries, which cover 76 acres in the City of Richmond and Henrico County was simply too massive for weekend warriors. We knew this. Our group, the Friends of East End, did our work with the understanding that the comprehensive reclamation and restoration of these sites, where tens of thousands of Black folk were buried during Jim Crow and after, would require significant government funding and assistance. Our progress, slow but tangible, would create the momentum that would allow government agencies to step in. We hoped.

Friends of East End workday at the cemetery. May 24, 2015. (Enrichmond made FOEE remove the sign and flower garden in 2021.)

As I walked the cemeteries on a late spring day with Brett Glymph, the African American director of VOF, she told me that these sites deserved “parity” with Confederate burial grounds. I agreed. For more than a century, Virginia’s Confederate cemeteries had received millions of dollars for upkeep from the General Assembly. Confederate graves and cemeteries had their own law, enshrined in the Virginia state code. And historic Black cemeteries? Nothing from the state until 2018. (Some things do change, albeit quietly: “State funds for Confederate Graves and Cemeteries ended as of State Fiscal Year 2022, which began July 1, 2021,” according to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources website.)

Help for these African American cemeteries would come faster, I was told, if I acted less like a journalist and more like a concerned citizen. Over coffee, Mark Kronenthal, an adviser to then Richmond mayor Dwight Jones and a lawyer, told me that the deal could go sideways if I poked and prodded at it. Glymph, with whom I’d been corresponding switched from email to text. The explanation? “FOIA,” she wrote.

The pitch that VOF made to the public — and to its board of trustees — was vague but promising. “This grant is envisioned as a first step to insure permanent protection for the properties and enable restoration efforts to continue with funds and certainty,” it read. “The second step could involve Henrico County or City of Richmond (Parks and Recreation or Public Works Department), Enrichmond Foundation, or Friends of Evergreen and East End becoming the fee owner and establishing a formal plan for care and use of these properties that respects the historic resources and benefits the community.” On paper, this appeared to be a true public-private partnership. So we endorsed the proposal. We reached out to East End descendants and asked them to send letters of support to VOF’s board of trustees, which would be voting on it.

East End Cemetery volunteers take Virginia Outdoors Foundation officials and trustees on a tour of Evergreen and East End. June 29, 2016

This proposal named Enrichmond, which had been our group’s fiscal agent briefly, “a major partner.” Enrichmond had played no discernible role in cemetery clearing efforts to that point, so this seemed odd. But the document also listed a host of other parties, including Henrico County Department of Public Works, Virginia Commonwealth University, University of Richmond, and Virginia State University.

Unfortunately, the officials who were speaking to me were having completely separate conversations with their true partner: Enrichmond, to which VOF had effectively pledged the grant, along with the cemeteries, without telling the public and without requiring the nonprofit to prove it had the capacity or expertise to take on the sites. No studies, no plans, no hearings. Once the deal was done, a VOF staffer, Jason McGarvey, told me, you might as well throw the proposal document “in the wastebasket.” As I have written before, we got played.

The view from behind the curtain

“It was chaos” at Enrichmond, said Vice. “There were too many things that John was trying to juggle,” she said of Sydnor. “I think that he would do whatever he could to juggle what was on his plate.” Among the balls that Enrichmond dropped, besides the cemeteries: the Chimborazo Urban OrchardKanawha Plaza, and, of course, the 17th Street Market. The contract for the historic market authorized Enrichmond to spend up to a million dollars.

“John [Sydnor] got so excited” about handling events at Kanawha Plaza for the city, said Erin Jenkins, Enrichmond’s former partnership coordinator. “He was going to have little happy hours down there, they were going to be awesome…. He schmoozed all around there because there’s banks and law firms.” But when it came to fund-raising? “Never happened. He gave it up. He quit.” This was a pattern, added Jenkins, who left Enrichmond in September 2017 after nearly two years with the nonprofit. “Enrichmond takes over a project for a hot second — a year, tops, maybe two — and then the city buys it, takes it back.”

Former Enrichmonders Vice and Jenkins said that unearthing the full Enrichmond story will be difficult because of the way its leader operated. “Most of the dealings would be done over coffee or in a way that would be hard to trace,” said Vice. Jenkins agreed. “Business was done in “little handshake agreements that directly affect the cemeteries, that directly affect the partners.”

The answers to what caused Enrichmond’s implosion lie with those who held the power, Jenkins said. “It’s going to be one of three places, or it’s going to be a combination of all three: it’s going to be the board, or Beth [Captain, Enrichmond’s contract accountant], or John [Sydnor], or it’s going to be all three. They need to be held accountable.”

“I think that as these stories continue to come out,” Jenkins said, “we’re seeing that the emperor has no clothes.”

The emperor also showed a stunning blindness to America’s racial history, his own privilege, and the unsuitability of his elevation to historic Black cemetery owner. Sydnor told shockingly anachronistic stories in public settings about his mission at Evergreen and East End, including one about a visit to the cemeteries with “an elderly white couple.” “We took them to the plot that was the woman who raised them,” he told members of the DCGRVA during a December 2, 2021, Zoom call. “To see those two folks drop to their knees and start crying and say that was their mother, this is the woman who raised them and made them the people they are today, really is why we were here, so we could connect our descendants to the families that have been lost.”

He’d told that story before, clearly to the wrong person in city government. “The idea that we should be excited about the fact that descendants of a white family who ‘owned’ and enslaved Africans felt nostalgic about visiting their ‘mammie’s’ grave is not one to be celebrated — especially not within a context of racial equity and justice,” a senior policy adviser to the mayor wrote to the head of the Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities in a February 4, 2021, email obtained through FOIA.

Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond, VA. April 30, 2023

For a white owner of two historic African American burial grounds to deploy a mammy story — to Black people, no less — was more than insulting or tone-deaf. It revealed his fundamental unfitness to be steward of these sites and the cynicism and sloppiness of those who installed and maintained him in that position.

Q: Where’s the plan? A: Look, a squirrel!

From the beginning, the Friends of East End and others were outspoken in our demands that VOF explain the sweetheart deal to the public, provide the due diligence that led them to make it, and offer genuine opportunities for community input. We got none of that before acquisition — and next to nothing afterwards.

There was at least one government official who was skeptical enough to put their doubts on the record, albeit anonymously. In 2016, before the VOF-Enrichmond deal had even been announced, a staffer at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR) sent a memo, which we got through FOIA, to the head of the agency after meeting with counterparts at VOF.

The DHR staffer said that they:

made it clear that taking on a cemetery means taking on all of the emotional, cultural, and sociological baggage associated with burial grounds — all of which are increased exponentially in this instance by Richmond’s segregation history and its ongoing difficulty with any issues involving race. I recommended that VOF hold a few community conversations before making any final decisions, in order to understand how this might affect the descendant community.

Neither VOF nor Enrichmond held any such community conversations before Parity, then controlled by Enrichmond’s executive director, acquired Evergreen Cemetery. VOF and Enrichmond kept plowing ahead. Enrichmond lined up loans from Preservation Virginia and Virginia Community Capital. Preservation Virginia loaned Enrichmond $50,000, according to documents in Enrichmond’s internal records. (I had been told in 2017 by a former Preservation Virginia officer that the amount was more than double that.) Virginia Community Capital provided Enrichmond with $250,000 around the time it acquired Evergreen, according to a letter approving a loan “[f]or the purchase of real estate.” I contacted VCC to ask about the loan. “Respectfully, Virginia Community Capital does not wish to comment,” was the reply from a senior vice president. Enrichmond still owes roughly $185,000 on the loan, according to a VCC Bank statement in the Enrichmond files.

It appears that the future of the cemeteries rests in several pairs of hands: VCC, the banker; VOF, which holds conservation easements on both Evergreen and East End; and the City of Richmond, to which the properties legally revert if Enrichmond dissolves, according to the nonprofit’s articles of incorporation. But there’s a fourth party: Parity, Enrichmond’s property-holding arm. No, it’s not dead yet. In fact, it is still in business, according to the State Corporation Commission. And Parity still owns both cemeteries.

Community meeting to discuss Evergreen and East End cemeteries organized by the Friends of East End at the Robinson Theater, Richmond, VA. June 27, 2017

“Recreation plantation”

Evidence we’ve compiled over the years indicates that Enrichmond’s play at the cemeteries had little to do with preservation and everything to do with land, power, and money.

At an April 28, 2017, meeting in the Virginia General Assembly building called by Delegate Delores McQuinn, Sydnor first shared his grand plan: a 100-acre reserve under Enrichmond’s control, with Evergreen and East End at its center. Sydnor and VOF’s Glymph and McGarvey tag-teamed to sell the scheme to the dozen or so people in the room.

“Even though it’s not public ownership, it’s certainly much closer to public ownership with Enrichmond than it would be with a true third party, or, even a university or something that’s truly independent,” McGarvey said. “And Enrichmond has a board. We feel that the accountability measures are in place, there, that if things were to go awry, for whatever reason… Let’s say John [Sydnor] left, and the board left, and a whole new team came in, and they just did not live up to their end of the deal. We feel like we can deal with that, as a state agency, because they have some accountability checks in place” (emphasis added).

Those promised “accountability checks” don’t seem to have kicked in.

At that meeting, I questioned the huge scope of Enrichmond’s 100-acre concept and the fact that it put the cemeteries in Sydnor’s hands — backed with public dollars and private loans — before descendants and other citizens could weigh in and possibly challenge the plan. I said that there must be a mechanism whereby non-Enrichmond groups had a decision-making and planning role, not simply “advisory” status. “Regardless of ownership, there should be community participation,” I said. Enrichmond and VOF took the position that the democratic and community stuff would come later.

“I am going to hold you personally responsible,” Delegate McQuinn told Sydnor toward the end of that 2017 meeting.

“Yes, ma’am,” he replied.

“OK?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Sydnor repeated.

This 100-acre proposal would later be released as Enrichmond’s $19 million “master plan,” which emphasizes construction — a visitors center, promenade, bus terminal, etc.—over preservation. Sydnor floated pieces of the project in April 2019 at one of the public meetings held by the city on its comprehensive development plan, Richmond 300. The cemeteries and land around them were labeled simply “Green,” as if they were meadows or parks, not long-abused, historic Black burial grounds.

Map presented at Richmond 300 session of the Land Use Working Group by Enrichmond’s former executive director at the Richmond Public Library. “Green” is written over Evergreen and East End. April 17, 2019

This master plan allotted no new funding to locate the thousands of unmarked graves it planned to build around or, potentially, on top of. That shocked archaeologists with whom we shared the plan. “Sydnor et al. plan hundreds of feet of water, sewer, and electricity — underground electricity is specified in the plan,” one archaeologist who studied the master plan told us, “but do not acknowledge that the required trenching can obliterate the remains of these lost individuals.”

“The [Enrichmond] Foundation and the VOF described Richmond’s historic Black cemeteries as amenity landscapes — potential public historic and green space commodities to serve the larger community — rather than cultural landscapes,” Meghan Z. Gough, Kathryn Howell, and Hannah Cameron wrote in their academic study of the Enrichmond community engagement process for Evergreen Cemetery in which two of the three participated. I called it a plan for a “recreation plantation.” Enrichmond objected to that.

Enrichmonders continually referred to the planning process as “descendant-led.” In fact, the plan was largely the product of an Atlanta-based construction firm, Pond & Company, with input from an advisory body — the misleadingly named Executive Planning and Review Team, aka ExPRT — that Enrichmond created and then disbanded. “[I]t was not collaborative governance or the community-driven structure we had been made to believe,” Gough, Howell, and Cameron wrote. When asked if the process was descendant-led, descendant Jarene Fleming replied succinctly, “It wasn’t.”

Enrichmonders’ relationship to transparency has always been like a vampire’s to garlic. In a particularly nasty (and unpublished) letter to the editor of the Richmond Free Press, four Enrichmond partisans noted that I had “declined” to serve on Enrichmond’s advisory team. What they left out is why— and who else had made the same decision. Brenda Jones had landscaped Maggie L. Walker’s family plot using her own money. ExPRT seemed to Jones more of an afterthought than a genuine attempt to involve descendants in the planning and restoration of Evergreen. So she declined the invitation.

Jones objected to the same line in ExPRT’s charter that had jumped out at me:

“The Team serves at the pleasure of the Enrichmond Foundation, which reserves the right to dissolve, reorganize, or otherwise alter the structure of the Team at any time, for any reason.”

“The individuals in Evergreen ‘served at the pleasure’ of the Richmond community for over 200 years,” Jones wrote in an email to the Enrichmond staffer organizing this team. “Was this not a golden opportunity to create a partnership relationship with interested African Americans whose family members and friends are interred in Evergreen, rather than an ownership-servitude relationship?” Fleming, who did join ExPRT, sent proposed edits of the team’s charter, including the deletion of the offending clause, to Enrichmond’s point person. Enrichmond declined to make any changes. So she resigned. (Months later, Enrichmond removed the “pleasure” language but retained “the right to dissolve, reorganize, or otherwise alter the structure of the Team at any time.”)

That letter from the four Enrichmond enablers — VOF trustee Viola Baskerville, Enrichmond board member John Mitchell, Enrichmond board president J. David Young, and Veronica Davis — was a response to a March 2020 letter the Free Press published that I had written. I asked simple questions, among them:

• Why did the state, through VOF, designate Enrichmond — a small nonprofit with no cemetery administration experience and no discernible presence at either East End or Evergreen — as the eventual owner of the cemeteries and sole recipient of state funds?

• Why didn’t the state require Enrichmond to present a preservation plan for these two fragile sites before Enrichmond acquired Evergreen Cemetery in 2017 and East End Cemetery in 2019?

• [W]hen will the state release public documents that explain all of the above, as well how it plans to monitor the Enrichmond Foundation at these sacred sites?

Rather than respond directly and factually to the specific questions, the letter writers gave a laundry list of Enrichmond’s supposed qualifications: “The Enrichmond Foundation is a City chartered foundation acting with the approval of the City of Richmond’s leadership,” they wrote. “The Enrichmond Foundation had experience owning and managing land for public use…. the Enrichmond Foundation had the organizational capacity to work quickly… the Enrichmond Foundation has a board leadership structure that could be held accountable for decision making.”

Talking the talk, faking the funk

For years, there’s been a yawning gap between Enrichmond’s rhetoric and its performance, particularly at the cemeteries.

“The key to Enrichmond’s integrity is that our primary driver is ‘Do no harm,’’’ Sydnor wrote in a long letter to Richmond mayor Levar Stoney in February 2021 that touted Enrichmond’s purported achievements and grand plans. “We are committed, heart and soul, to protecting, preserving, and celebrating these sacred places and returning them to their original glory,” Enrichmond posted to Instagram in March 2021.

Yet Enrichmond’s executive director chose to do things that hurt the cemeteries time and again. He started in 2017 by threatening to evict the longtime volunteer groups from both cemeteries and create two new volunteer crews. (I was on that phone call.) And then following through on that threat with a relentless pressure campaign. And while Sydnor was spending thousands of dollars on strategic planners, PR consultants, promotional video productions — with drone footage — social media barrages, and capital campaign studies, Enrichmond’s cemetery operations were largely an amateur improvisation.

After a storm knocked down several trees at Evergreen and East End in July 2021, Sydnor blocked access for months, even as other cemeteries reopened across the city. Enrichmond barricaded the road with metal police barriers and plastic police tape, later replacing the ersatz arrangement with cattle gates — hardly a fitting entrance to a “memorial park,” as it referred to the cemeteries.

To enter, Enrichmond required descendants to call its “ambassador.”

Barriers blocking the entrance to Evergreen and East End cemeteries. October 21, 2021

“You don’t tell a person they can’t go to the place of their spiritual connection, you let them make that decision,” Artie Jefferson told me. “You don’t do that with a church or a cemetery unless you ain’t the right kind of person.” His life partner of 26 years, Patricia Ann Hardy, is buried at Evergreen, as is Jefferson’s mother. “I sense that something just ain’t right,” he told me. “I sense — and it may sound crazy — when you’re dealing with a snake. And that’s not a good way to put it, but the person that put that barrier up like that is somebody used to manipulating the game.”

Artie Jefferson tends Patricia Ann Hardy’s grave, Evergreen Cemetery. October 2, 2016

When it took over East End in 2020 after forcing the Friends of East End out, Enrichmond neglected the cemetery for months at a time. Dense weeds returned to areas we had carefully cleared over the years. Only when it was called out on social media did Enrichmond engage crews for a round of crisis mowing. Commercial landscapers blitzed through the cemetery with weed whackers, damaging one-of-a-kind grave markers and, in some cases, mangling them beyond recognition.

Nonetheless, in 2021, Enrichmond almost convinced the City of Richmond to give it control of an additional Black burial ground, Colored Paupers Cemetery, which lies within the footprint of Sydnor’s proposed 100-acre reserve, through a long-term lease. “I would like to know why an organization with such a dubious track record is being granted special access to yet another historic African American cemetery, when it manifestly cannot manage the two cemeteries it owns,” Erin Hollaway Palmer, my wife and cemetery comrade, wrote to the head of Richmond’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities in December 2020.

We weren’t alone in our criticism. VCU’s Ryan Smith, author of Death and Rebirth in a Southern City: Richmond’s Historic Cemeteries, blogged about the proposed deal. “So to recap, the grassroots volunteers of the Friends of East End get cleared out, and the irresponsible and ill-equipped Enrichmond Foundation receives further responsibilities over sensitive historic sites.”

Our opposition inflamed Enrichmond partisans. In an email to ExPRT members, Viola Baskerville mounted a full-throated defense of Enrichmond, culminating in this statement: “[A]s a member of the Preservation Trust Fund Subcommittee of the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, I look forward to reviewing and recommending to the full board the approval of Enrichmond’s application for conservation protection of Colored Paupers Cemetery.”

More than just a conflict of interest, this seems like a threat to use government-conferred power — the governor appoints VOF’s trustees — to ram through a deal for a friend. Furthermore, in a fair application-vetting process, there’s a step between “reviewing” and “recommending,” calledevaluating or assessing its merits.

Citizen backlash compelled the city to reject Enrichmond’s advances. The city also finally cut off Enrichmond’s nondepartmental funding at that time.

It’s notable — and worrisome — that the master plan’s main government backer, VOF, has never disavowed it. Even more disturbing is that VOF continues to negotiate the future of the cemeteries behind closed doors, according to the Enrichmond files and VOF itself. “As the easement holder, we will continue to work with the owners of the property to uphold the terms of the easement in perpetuity,” VOF’s Nathan Burrell wrote in an email to the DCGRVA earlier this month.

Jefferson tends Patricia Ann Hardy’s grave, Evergreen Cemetery. January 27, 2021

The long game

Members of the Friends of East End have been working at the cemetery almost every day for the past month, carefully mowing and weed whacking, and using our hands to wrench out vines where a machine might damage a marker. In fact, even during Enrichmond’s misrule, we did what we could — removing fallen branches and hauling out logs, brushing leaves and dirt away from headstones. We’re still holding off on large-scale volunteer days, but hope to start them up again soon. This effort, started by John Shuck, will celebrate its 10th anniversary in July.

Friends of East End workday at the cemetery. February 11, 2023

In the Enrichmond files, there’s an email from board chair J. David Young in which he recounts to VOF’s Burrell a conversation he says he had with the mayor. “He also brought up Brian Palmer and asked ‘what does he want?” Young wrote.

“Once we agreed that he doesn’t seem to know or be able to articulate it clearly, we moved on to talk about the need for Enrichmond to continue to assist and support the City’s outreach efforts.”

Member of the Friends of East End hauls brush and clippings out of the cemetery at the end of a work session. April 25, 2023

Along with many other citizens and descendants, including the more than 13,000 people who signed the Friends of East End’s 2021 Change.org petition, I have articulated what we want very clearly over the past seven years — in emails and letters, face-to-face in meetings, on Zoom and phone calls: transparency, accountability, a substantive role for descendants and volunteers in decision-making at East End and Evergreen, and robust and responsible stewardship of the cemeteries. In the introduction to the petition, we wrote the following:

These demands are simple and straightforward. They amount to a request for transparency and basic respect: respect for descendants and other Black Virginians, for sacred burial grounds, and for ancestors whose dignity and rights were denied during their lifetimes. Richmond’s African American cemeteries should be transformative sites of real engagement with history and community-building, not places that perpetuate a legacy of paternalism and exclusion — a legacy that, thus far, has been all too evident in Parity/Enrichmond’s actions.

These principles should have been the foundation of the plan for sensitive, sacred, and contested community assets such as Evergreen and East End. Instead, Enrichmond and its government backers served us a program cooked up in secret that treated the sites as commodities for exploitation, then masked that program beneath layers of PR full of falsehood and self-congratulation.

For years Enrichmond and its partisans have framed the discord over their performance at the cemeteries as a battle of personalities and opinions, one grumpy journalist against them. That framing allowed Enrichmonders and their funders to ignore valid objections and criticism raised by many others and to dismiss the facts we laid out. It’s fitting and a little paradoxical that Enrichmond’s own internal correspondence is dissolving its empire and giving the community some of the answers it deserves. But that’s not enough. Missing from those files are most of the communications with the government agencies that propped up the nonprofit for so long. These are most likely in the computer systems of these entities — and in the minds of those who didn’t commit certain statements to writing. Only from these sources will we get a full accounting of the money spent on this failed enterprise, restitution for the damage done and funds lost, a fair deal for the cemeteries, and justice for the citizens of Richmond.

Give Brian Palmer a follow at @bxpnyc
Read more from Brian Palmer on Medium HERE

Brian Palmer

Brian Palmer

Brian is a Peabody Award-winning multimedia journalist based in Richmond, Va., currently serving as a visiting professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Smithsonian magazine, and other publications and on PBS, BBC, Reveal, and other outlets. Since the end of 2014, he and his wife, Erin Hollaway Palmer, have been part of the volunteer effort to reclaim East End Cemetery, a historic African American burial ground in Richmond, Virginia, from nature, neglect, and vandalism.




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