Reclaiming Our Sacred Ground


Originally published in the Autumn 2020 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 63, printed October 29. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Autumn 2020 issue or download the full PDF, see this post. For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.

By Ellen Chapman

There was palpable shock and sorrow at a public hearing as descendants of families buried at the Evergreen and East End cemeteries heard that human bones recovered near the Richmond cemeteries had likely been the victims of medical dissection.

The Virginia Department of Historic Resources held the online hearing Oct. 23 to discuss how to reinter the remains – more than 200 bones from nine adult individuals, both male and female – found in July in a wooden box eroding out of a bank between the two Black cemeteries.

The meeting was led by DHR Director Julie Langan, Deputy Director Stephanie Williams and Archaeologist Joanne Wilson Green, along with John Sydnor, executive director of Enrichmond, the nonprofit organization that owns the cemeteries.

Green stated that dissection cuts on the bones and the burial of the nine individuals together indicated that “at least some of these individuals were taken from their original graves and were subjected to medical dissection.”

Virginia Commonwealth University professor Ryan Smith, a member of the East End Collaboratory of cemetery researchers, attended the meeting and later wrote, “I was prepared for a difficult evening. I had no idea how difficult it would be.”

In addition to expressing their pain from learning about the desecration of remains in a public online meeting, many descendants and cemetery volunteers expressed concerns regarding how decisions are made by Enrichmond. The organization had contacted the media and distributed images of the bones when they were discovered.

“I am truly outraged … with this summer’s exploitation of my ancestors’ bones,” said Jerene Fleming, a former member of Enrichmond’s ExPRT advisory group. “I want you to feel how shook I am right now, hearing this news in a public venue, about those bones. It just blows my mind.”

Maurice Hopkins, a current ExPRT member, urged independent oversight.

“The descendants and families of those interred in Evergreen and East End should have the authority to make decisions about their family members,” he said. “I strongly suggest that an advisory board – and I’ve suggested it time and time again – be formed for each of those two cemeteries, and the Colored Paupers cemetery as well. …

“Evergreen Cemetery was bought by the Iseminger family to keep it out of the hands of whites who were opportunists. It is now belonging to Enrichmond. It is still the white operation.”

Currently, there is no independent elected body of descendants with decision-making power over how Enrichmond operates at Evergreen and East End.

Members of the nonprofit organization Friends of East End Cemetery reiterated their concerns about Enrichmond’s stewardship of the cemeteries, particularly allegations of lack of transparency, poor treatment of volunteers, inadequate maintenance, and resistance to independent oversight.

A recording of the hearing is on the Department of Historic Resources website:

Ellen Chapman is an archaeologist living in Richmond, Virginia.

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