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Family cemetery uncovered in Varina: 'It took my breath away'

'You’re watching history happen in front of you. It’s just a magical thing.'
Posted at 10:43 AM, Jan 15, 2023

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. — What started out as a quest to find out where the woman in the old family photo — her great-grandmother — was buried led Olivia J. Garland to a thicket in eastern Henrico County that, with the help of chain saws, loppers and mowers, revealed a lost family history and an emotional link to the past.

And her great-grandmother’s gravesite.

“When I saw her headstone, I was so thrilled and I thought, I’ve got to clean this place up,” Garland said. “I can’t let her grave sit here in the middle of the woods and snakes and everything else.”

To clean up the site, Garland organized a band of volunteers that has taken to calling itself the Friends and Families of the Battlefield Park Road Family Cemetery. The group has cleared enough of the overgrowth from the old cemetery to find 19 graves and believes there are more in the area that will require additional work as well as research of historical land records, Garland said.

In October, the group held a reconsecration and sign installation ceremony that was attended by several dozen people, including local government leaders and members from the National Park Service. (The cemetery is adjacent to land that is part of Richmond National Battlefield Park.) The new sign gives the cemetery a name: “Battlefield Park Rd African-American Family Cemetery.”

The sign adds: “May they never be forgotten.”

After retiring in 2018 following a long and varied career that included a stint as vice president at Optum UnitedHealth Group and deputy commissioner at the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (“that speaks to the strength of my ancestors,” she says) Garland became very interested in genealogy, a pursuit that only intensified after a family reunion just before the pandemic hit.

“When you’re doing genealogy, one of the things you love is to go out to cemeteries,” she said. “After the reunion, I really got interested in trying to find out where people are buried.”

One such person was her great-grandmother, America Virginia Fields, of whom she has a photograph. She assumed she and her great-grandfather, William Fields, were buried with other relatives at the St. James Cemetery in Varina.

The cemetery is not far from St. James Baptist Church on New Market Road, though it’s not officially connected to the church. Garland explained that like several other African American communities in Varina, the so-called St. James community, where she grew up, took its name from the nearby church.

She visited St. James Cemetery but couldn’t find her great-grandparents, which set her to poking around in her memory.

“I remembered when I was a little girl, there was a road leading to my grandparents’ home on Battlefield Park Road and there was a little cemetery there,” said Garland, who hasn’t lived in the area for decades. “I attended a few funerals with my parents back in the ’50s or ’60s.”

But she couldn’t remember exactly where it was, and she couldn’t see anything that looked like a cemetery. So, she called Henrico County, which referred her to the Henrico County Historical Society a couple of years ago to see if it had a listing of another small cemetery in the area. The historical society put her in touch with John Shuck, a volunteer extraordinaire who for more than a decade has been working to clean up long-neglected African American burial grounds, including Evergreen, East End and Woodland cemeteries.

Shuck found the cemetery in county records, but there were only about a half-dozen names listed as having been buried there, and Garland’s great-grandparents were not among them.

Such records can be incomplete, so they went to take a look at the cemetery, but they couldn’t find it. Nature had taken over. Trees, briars and many years of unhindered growth had transformed the quarter-acre of cemetery into what Garland described as “a forest.”

So, with Shuck’s guidance and power tools (and the cooperation of the National Park Service), the volunteers, which included Shuck’s wife, Debbie, got to work removing several dumpsters of vegetation and reclaiming what they were certain was hallowed ground.

One day as the work progressed, Shuck called to Garland, “Olivia, come over here!” With piles of leaves swept away, he had found, against the base of a tree, a gravestone in the shape of a church lying flat against the ground, bearing the name, “America Fields, Died Dec 24, 1927.”

“It took my breath away,” Garland said. “It was very emotional.”

When she could finally speak, she summoned the rest of her volunteer team, most of whom were cousins, “because this was their great-grandmother, too.”

She has not found her great-grandfather’s grave, but she suspects it might be just beyond where they’ve already cleared. More work needs to be done.

Among the volunteers has been Garland’s son, Lynden, an architect, who became part of the effort because his mother asked him, but also because he was fascinated, having grown up listening to family stories.

“She didn’t have to ask me more than once,” he said with a laugh, noting the work at the cemetery offered a hands-on opportunity to become a part of those stories himself.

He relished being there “watching my mom light up” with the discovery of every grave and headstone, those kind of “weird wonderful moments that just kept happening every time we pulled back leaves or pulled back brush.”

“You’re watching history happen in front of you,” he said. “It’s just a magical thing.”

The last burial at the little cemetery occurred in 1972. The cemetery became overgrown and lost to time for the simple reason that the people most connected to it died and younger generations moved away and got busy with their lives.

Now, it has been rediscovered, and younger family members such as Lynden Garland — a generation removed from having any first-hand knowledge of the cemetery or the people buried there — have been introduced to the place and energized by the tangible connection.

“To see (his great-great-grandmother’s) grave was a monumental moment for me,” he said. “To be able to have that moment with my mom and other family members … is like, ‘Wow!’”

And now?

“There’s a vested interest in making sure that place doesn’t get overgrown again,” he said.

In the scope of things, the small cemetery off Battlefield Park Road is not in the same category as larger African American burial grounds that have been in the news in recent times because of neglect, such as Woodland Cemetery, where there are 30,000 gravesites across almost 30 acres.

But at its heart, Battlefield Park Rd African-American Family Cemetery is very much the same.

“It’s all still about letting families find where their loved ones are,” Shuck said. “Gravestones are maybe the only tangible evidence you have of someone that’s passed on.”

Genealogical research is particularly difficult for those of African American descent because many are descended from enslaved people, who did not appear on traditional federal records before 1870.

The little cemetery on Battlefield Park Road is also notable because of its location near the site of Fort Gilmer, a Confederate earthworks fort that became a focal point in 1864 of Union efforts to break through to Richmond. African American soldiers from the 9th U.S. Colored Troops participated in an attack in September 1864 but were “annihilated” by those defending the fort, according to a National Park Service history.

So, Black troops very possibly tread over the land that became the cemetery and might have died there.

In any case, Shuck said that when land was designated for the national park, the cemetery apparently was left alone because it was a cemetery.

Though not all carry such a historical footnote, there are “tons” of small, family cemeteries tucked away, forgotten and neglected for various reasons, all across the countryside, said Viola O. Baskerville, a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates and a charter member of the Greater Richmond Chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society.

She also is on the board of trustees of the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, which provided a $6,000 grant to Friends and Families of the Battlefield Park Road Family Cemetery. Olivia Garland said the group would use the money to acquire tools that will allow it to maintain the cemetery.

The coming together of those groups indicates a desire to “lift up history” and undo the “disservice” that years of neglect have done to their memories, she said.

“These people’s lives are important because they lived and they were part of the building of the community,” Baskerville said. “These projects, whether they are big or small, help lift up the significance and importance of humanity.

“Wherever there are these burial sites, we need to respect them, and we need to make sure that history is not then lost in 50, 60 or 100 years from now.”

Olivia Garland said there is much work to do at the Battlefield Park Road cemetery, both in terms of physical cleanup and maintenance but also historical research to find out more about the stories of the people buried there.

“Our ancestors struggled, and we are who we are because of them, and I want them to be recognized and honored,” she said. “I grew up with this thing of honoring your family and honoring your elders and realizing they went through a lot for you to be here.”

Garland added, “People say, ‘There used to be a cemetery over there.’ Not used to be. Still is.”

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