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How this man hopes to restore historic African-American cemeteries in Henrico

Posted at 2:22 PM, Aug 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-14 14:22:10-04

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- A nonprofit organization, with some help from Henrico County, is hoping to breathe new life into Woodland Cemetery.

The African Americans cemetery, founded in 1916 on Magnolia Road in eastern Henrico, is the final resting place for more than 30,000 people.

"A lot of doctors, lawyers, and schoolteachers," Marvin Harris, executive director of the Evergreen Restoration Foundation, said. "The Arthur Ashe family is probably one of the most prominent [families buried here]."

However, like other Black cemeteries in the area without funding for perpetual care, it's fallen into disrepair.

"We got to make sure we bring the respect back to Woodland, Evergreen, and East End cemeteries," Harris said. "We need to do that. Just for the people interred."

Harris's nonprofit has purchased the cemetery for $50,000. It got half of that money from Henrico County, along with a promise for future support.

"Henrico County is behind us. I'll say 1,000%," Harris said.

Harris said a complete cemetery restoration could take over a decade, but many hands make light work.

"We need every person that was willing to step up and help out. We need you," he said.

In a statement on behalf of the family, Arthur Ashe's widow Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe said in part, "I support these efforts to restore the cemetery and unlock the rich stories of those buried there. A holistic understanding of Richmond's poignant history may be the best way to lead us all into the future."

“Let this be a watershed moment, not just for this cemetery but for other Black cemeteries,” Fairfield District Supervisor Frank Thornton said in an article posted on the Henrico County website. “Just as the Middle Ages inspired us with the Romanesque church and godly cathedrals, we’re here this morning to give recognition to the revival of Black cemeteries, which are repositories of history and museums.”

Henrico County Manager John A. Vithoulkas credited Thornton with taking him on a tour of the area’s neglected Black cemeteries about eight years ago, not long after he became county manager.

State Del. Delores L. McQuinn (D-70) said she expected Woodland to qualify for state funding.

“These are sacred spaces, and we must treat them as sacred spaces,” she said. “For those who contributed so much in their life, in their death, we need to contribute some of our time to make sure that we are preparing the next generation to understand how important these spaces are. These are lifelines to our history.”