No, everything is not broken
The Maine Old Cemetery Association, dedicated to preservation of Maine’s neglected cemeteries, has a fascinating Facebook page. From the page’s 2,740 members, MOCA posters share photos of restoration projects, discoveries; they network and share history lessons.
Seeing an 18th century Maine graveyard brought back to life — in a manner of speaking — is gratifying. Plus, some MOCA members are experts at cleaning and repairing gravestones. I appreciate their generosity in passing along their knowledge, and I am grateful for the Maine history they keep intact.
I am also grateful for an Aug. 31, 2019 post by MOCA member Patrice Cosineau. Ms. Cosineau caught my attention with her post — an NBC Nightly News video — about Richmond, VA’s Evergreen historic burial ground.
The drive to Evergreen Cemetery in Richmond from Kittery on Maine’s southern border is 611 miles; about a 12-hour drive if you’re stopping for gas and bathrooms along the way. The Nightly News story was clearly about Evergreen’s restoration — but watching the video I discovered something else.
I saw the importance of the Evergreen Cemetery story, especially at a time in history when we are treated to a daily news barrage of America as a racist country.
During the U.S. Civil War, the City of Richmond, VA was a Capitol for the Confederate States. Evergreen Cemetery has been in Richmond since the 1890s. It is a 60-acre resting place for more than 20,000 “prominent black Virginians,” said NBC News reporter Ron Allen, “Doctors, lawyers, soldiers — African American heroes of their time whose accomplishments, like [Evergreen] are long forgotten,” said Allen.
The video of the cemetery is stunning. Think of driving along Maine backroads and seeing stone walls bordering and criss-crossing thick forests and underbrush that were decades ago farm fields. That gives you a sense of the Virginia trees and vines that swallowed 20,000 gravesites, monuments, obelisks, iron fencing and gates. Gone from view.
Other online Evergreen videos help fill out its incomplete history. Around the 1930s, when there was a significant migration of black southerners moving north for economic reasons, Evergreen Cemetery was in decline. For one reason, the cemetery owners never established a fund for Evergreen’s perpetual care. Another reason — speculated by local officials and people involved in the restoration — is that the families of people buried in Evergreen were part of that migration.
Also, neither the State of Virginia nor the City of Richmond ever dedicated tax dollars for maintaining Evergreen Cemetery.
But, said NBC’s Ron Allen, that’s changing.
The Virginia Outdoors Foundation preserves open land spaces. It is helping with Evergreen Cemetery’s preservation. Virginia Outdoors Foundation Executive Director Brett Glymph told NBC the willingness to reclaim Evergreen is because, “We’ve evolved. We’re more mature as a society. I think we’re ready to deal with this history.”
This is a labor intensive project. Clearing 60 acres of overgrowth is a big job. Doing it while protecting 20,000-plus graves is monumental. Most of the work is by hand, and much of it is by volunteers relying on a small amount of financial donations.
Compounding the restoration? The work is such slow going that some cemetery areas cleared years ago are covered again in two to three feet of vegetation.
Still, there is progress here. Progress in recognizing the historic value Evergreen represents. And the progress I see at Evergreen in people of many races pulling together to do this work is a continuation of progress I have witnessed my entire life.
Thank you, Maine Old Cemetery Association, for reminding us: in spite of those politicians telling us everything is broken, everything is not broken. Not by a long shot. We need look no further than the Evergreen Cemetery volunteers to know that’s true.
Maine Old Cemetery Association
Virginia Outdoors Foundation
Scott K. Fish has served as a communications staffer for Maine Senate and House Republican caucuses, and was communications director for Senate President Kevin Raye. He founded and edited AsMaineGoes.com and served as director of communications/public relations for Maine’s Department of Corrections until 2015. He is now using his communications skills to serve clients in the private sector.