While many Americans used the holiday to kick back or play golf, others spent Martin Luther King Jr. day volunteering as part of a national day of service.
In Richmond, nearly 100 volunteers used the day off to do restoration work at the East End Cemetery, a historic Black cemetery on the Henrico border. The cemetery, established in 1897 next to Evergreen Cemetery, is the final resting place for an estimated 17,000 Richmonders, including many famous figures from the turn of the 20th century.
Some 100 volunteers came out, including several women from Kappa Epsilon Psi, the military sorority made up of veterans and active duty women soldiers. This was their second time at the annual Martin Luther King Jr cleanup, now in its 3rd year, but the Friends of East End Cemetery host weekly cleanups every Saturday.
“People usually talk about the prominent folks here, like Richard Tancil, a doctor born as a slave, but regular folks are buried here too, and their churches, employee groups, families, funded this,” said Brian Palmer, a member of the Friends of East End Cemetery, during the event. He and Erin Palmer, his wife, have been active members of the group since 2014.
The cemetery is in disrepair; many headstones lay flat, and the grounds are overgrown with English ivy and choking vines. Brian Palmer, who wrote an op-ed for us on the cemetery last June, told us why the cemetery fell into neglect.
“There are misconceptions about why these cemeteries are in this condition,” he said, briefly running through the many ways people of color were discriminated against and disenfranchised following Reconstruction. “Jim Crow knocked this cemetery into a coma. The laws starved these places of resources that went to Confederate monuments and cemeteries, and without the right to vote, people couldn’t do anything about it.”
Erin Palmer estimates that they’ve cleared 4.5 acres out of 12.5 acres suitable for burial on the site, which contains a 3.5-acre ravine. In total, they’ve uncovered some 3,000 headstones and temporary courtesy markers, and found the stories of thousands of Richmonders that seemed lost to history. “Sometimes, we have five volunteers plus the regulars; sometimes we have 50; sometimes we have 100 plus, like today,” she said.
Brian Palmer, a photographer, shoots the memorials to share on Instagram and for international reach on findagrave.com. The site hosts 3,815 images from East End Cemetery. On their own website, the group posts the stories of the people whose graves they’ve photographed. “We’re doing two things,” he said. “We’re physically reclaiming the space and reclaiming the history.”
“We do this every Saturday, but it matters on this particular day that we are in this cemetery, which was built out of love in response to hate,” he said, referencing the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. “This is a tremendous historical asset for the city of Richmond and the country, and love is what is going to save it.”
Photos by Brian Palmer