Brink Award Winner Gives New Life to a Forgotten Piece of Richmond’s Past
From November 15-18, the National Trust’s annual PastForward conference took place in Houston, Texas, offering numerous forums, power sessions, field studies, and educational opportunities for those interested in the field of historic preservation. During the conference, the Trust also recognized noteworthy preservationists in communities across the country.
One of those awards, the Peter H. Brink Award, is given annually to a non-career preservationist who performed exemplary preservation work in their community in the past year. This year’s award was given to John Shuck for his efforts in uncovering and revitalizing Richmond, Virginia’s East End Cemetery.
Shuck, a retiree from Iowa who moved to Virginia over 10 years ago, says his life-long interest in genealogy initially drew him to cemeteries. Five years ago, Shuck began volunteering with cleanup efforts at Richmond’s 19th-century Evergreen Cemetery.
During cleanup efforts in 2013, Shuck noticed a grave marker obscured by plants. Upon closer inspection, he realized he had stumbled across an unrecognized border into East End Cemetery, which sits adjacent to Evergreen down a shaded back road in Henrico County. Both privately owned, the two cemeteries are part of a conglomeration of four cemeteries that originally served the African-American population of Richmond. (At the time of their creation, the city’s burial practices were segregated.)
In this quiet corner of Richmond, there is almost as little evidence of other development now as there was when the first grave was dug at East End in 1897. Over the years, the 16-acre burial place had become neglected and was eventually forgotten as family members of those buried moved or passed away. In the case of East End, the cemetery’s decline was furthered by a lack of a perpetual care program.
Before Shuck found East End, markers and plot boundaries had been all but reclaimed by trees and pernicious English ivy. Narrow paths that originally led visitors to the various plots disappeared long ago, creating an overgrown, nearly impassible, and disorderly section of land amidst the typical pattern of fallen leaves and dense brush. Realizing that this cemetery was an important piece of Richmond’s history, Shuck organized a core volunteer group of about nine to uncover the grave markers and plots and attempt to discover the history behind the vast, wooded burial place.
Once the invasive trees and other natural debris are removed from the cemetery, Shuck hopes to enact a long-term maintenance program to ensure that the plots are looked after.
Typical for public cemeteries, perpetual care programs often maintain a trust that provides the funds to manage the cemetery’s appearance and protect the plots and grave markers in the often likely event that family members of those buried move away or are unable to care for the property. With the help of the state nonprofit Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF), which gave a $400,000 grant to the two cemeteries this year, Shuck hopes to realize his goal for long-care maintenance of the cemetery.
Shuck estimates his team have unearthed 2,200 legible grave markers thus far. Considering they began with 50 in 2013 and have no existing map of the graves, the efforts of Shuck and volunteers is monumental.
“We don’t have a lot of information about the burials, so we preserve what we can,” Shuck says. The lack of any records in the city archives or anywhere else make it a challenge to fully assess the historical importance of the cemetery. That doesn’t deter Shuck, though. “It’s both discouraging and exciting. There’s a little bit of thrill in discovery,” he admits.
The East End Cemetery project was Shuck’s first attempt at organizing a volunteer force. He says that none of his volunteers, who are mostly student groups from the nearby universities or members of local church or military groups, are related to those buried in the cemetery. Like him, they help out because they understand the importance of recognizing Richmond’s past through cultural sites like East End.
The work involved in eradicating invasive plants and uncovering and documenting grave markers is often grueling. Using hand tools such as bow rakes, loppers, and grub hoes, volunteers spend hours pulling up stubborn English ivy and weeds.
As they work, they scour the underbrush, looking for any hint of stone or metal that would indicate someone lies buried beneath. If they find a marker, they then use shovels to uncover it more fully before cleaning it with a soft brush and water.
After the marker is cleaned, Shuck and his volunteers upload photographs to FindAGrave.com with the hope that relatives will claim them.
Shuck says that one of the most satisfying parts of volunteering at the cemetery is being able to track down relatives of those buried.
“We call it uncovering history. It’s finding lost history of Richmond, just making order out of disorder,” says Shuck.
One of Shuck’s most memorable discoveries was of the final resting place of William Custalo, who ran the Custalo House, a hotel in Richmond, in the second half of the 19th century.
“We had some soldiers from Fort Lee here and they found his grave under a bunch of ivy…there were no records at all," says Shuck. "When [Custalo] died, he was thought to be the wealthiest black businessman in Richmond. We made him a little more prominent now.”
The cemetery’s transformation is striking. When Shuck first stumbled upon it, it had been used as an illegal dumping ground in the middle of a forest. Trash and old tires obscured grave markers, and vandals had broken many visible stones. Now, cleaned grave markers stand tall among manicured shrubs and trees. The tires and other trash have been moved away, replaced by cut grass and well-ordered grave plots. The once-beloved memorial to Richmond’s citizens is beginning to look like a cemetery again.
Shuck’s efforts are a reminder that underneath all of the dirt in a wooded forest in Richmond lie nearly 13,000 citizens who contributed to the city’s history in ways that are still being uncovered. Revitalizing East End is an exercise not only in compassion, but in preserving a crucial part of Richmond’s not-too-distant past with the help of those who love the city and want to remember the people who came before them.
Do you want to help? John Shuck maintains a blog that gives live updates on upcoming work days.