“Why do you focus so much on African-American gravesites and such?” was a question I was asked by a constituent just days after I joined Governor Terry McAuliffe for a celebratory, ceremonial bill signing of legislation I sponsored to provide state funding to charitable organizations and trusts to help preserve gravesites and monuments at two historically African-American cemeteries in Richmond.
Admittedly, I was a bit stunned, as the question came from an African American. But I realized that sometimes—oftentimes—we are so caught up in the trials and tribulations of today—that we forget the importance of the past and honoring those who have come before us.
The importance of this legislation is perhaps summed up in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.”
Virginia was birthed through a tremendous past, a past that includes a history of political revolution and business innovations. However, in the rise of our great democracy, certain segments of society were denied the equal access to education, healthcare, and justice. In Virginia, the white and Black populations were often segregated from birth to death.
Clear evidence of this segregated inequality can be found in our historic cemeteries. In the Evergreen Cemetery, underneath the piles of trash and debris, lies the remains of a Lincoln Republican who ran for Governor in 1921, John Mitchell, Jr. Mitchell was a journalist who fought openly for his 1st amendment right to free press and freely exercised his second amendment right to bear arms.
A few feet away from Mitchell and in between two hefty garbage bags and a fallen tree, is the plot of the trailblazer, Maggie Walker, the first female of any race to charter a bank in the United States. Mrs. Walker’s bank was a cornerstone of Richmond’s Historic Jackson Ward, then known as “Black Wall Street.” Maggie Walker, fought through paralysis to lead her banks and community through the Great Depression.
East End Cemetery is a historic African- American Cemetery in Henrico County and it is the final resting place of numerous prominent Black Richmonders from the turn of the 20th Century. Unfortunately, in order to reach this historic landmark one must drive on untreated and neglected roads and sidestep the illegally dumped trash.
Our historic African American cemeteries hold some of the iconic leaders of the past who, in many ways, have never been given their due honor. Funds have been earmarked for Revolutionary War and Confederate graves, which deserve that honor and attention. The celebrated Oakwood Cemetery, for example, is the resting place of Confederate soldiers whose graves are cleaned, tombstones are washed and plots are adorned with flags of secession, discrimination and racial segregation.
So this legislation just extends that honor to sites that have been left out of the equation. The amount of the appropriation is quite small. The symbolism, however, is huge.
And sometimes symbolism is important in and of itself. The passage of HB 1547 marks a change in the landscape of our regional history and builds on a forgotten foundation for our future.
Through this historic bill, we can truly begin to honor the contributions of African Americans in the Commonwealth. In the former Capital of the Confederacy, we are able to bring distinction to the giants who have come before us. We have taken steps in the right direction. No longer will we see the graves of Evergreen and East End desecrated by debris, trash and overgrown weeds. No longer will our dead be dismissed as insignificant. No longer will the preservation of African American history be considered an afterthought.
We have reinvested in the legacy of Black culture. Our children now can trace their history and visit the graves of their ancestors. Children can now find value in themselves as they look back to the greatness of their family’s past. Now that we have found value in those who paved the way for us, our lineage can find value in their proud culture. “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.”
Top photo via VCU CNS