In 1815, a group of free African-Americans in Richmond created a “Burying Ground Society of the Free People of Color of the City of Richmond” to provide a better alternative to the “Burial Ground for Negroes” in Shockoe Bottom. It was the first such organization composed by African Americans in the state. The group included at least one dozen free men and nearly that many free women. Pooling funds, the group purchased land on Academy Hill, in the northern part of town across Bacon’s Quarter Branch, for this purpose.
Only one year later, the city of Richmond opened two acres nearby for the burial of free blacks and slaves, at what would become known as the Potter’s field (and more recently as the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground).
The Burying Ground Society continued with its own plans, which promised more dignity and control. Its site soon became known as the “Phoenix burying ground,” and later as Cedarwood Cemetery.
Over the next decades, several other private African American organizations joined alongside this original group, including the Union [Mechanics] Burial Society, the Methodist burial ground society, and Ebenezer. The assemblage of these societies marked the increasing strength and numbers of the city’s free black population, creating an admired “city of the dead.” There, the city’s most prosperous black residents erected gravestones for the deceased, purchasing markers from J. W. Davies and other notable carvers. Some of the surviving markers date back to 1827.
Following emancipation in 1865, two additional groups purchased land adjoining the original grounds — the Sons and Daughters of Ham, and the Sycamore burial association. By 1881, the whole site had grown above twelve acres with thousands of burials. Memorial Days or “Whit Mondays” at the cemeteries during the spring regularly brought thousands of paraders assembled as societies, clubs, militias, or mourners with wreaths and floral tributes.
In the 1890s, white developers created the streetcar suburb of Barton Heights adjacent to the complex, and pressures on the African-American city of the dead grew. In 1904, the newly incorporated town closed the cemeteries to further burials, thereby being able, in its leaders’ view, “to relieve itself of the objectionable features of the colored cemeteries overlooking Bacon Quarter Branch.” The hostile town then lent the cemeteries their new name – henceforth, they would be known as the “Barton Heights Cemeteries.” The city of Richmond took over and consolidated the properties in the 1930s.
In the 1990s, local volunteers led by the descendant Denise Lester initiated cleanup and historical recognition for the neglected site. Volunteers succeeded in listing it on the National Register of Historic Places, surrounding it with a fence, raising a state historic marker, and hosting annual “Whitmonday” celebrations on the grounds. The city currently maintains the property, though the risk for further deterioration is apparent.
Podcast for Lucy Goode Brooks (founder of the Friends’ Asylum for Orphans), 1818-1900, by Cameron Lacy and Nicholas Schwandt:
For more information, see:
Barton Heights Cemeteries Digital Resources, a digital map of the cemetery, created by the East End Cemetery Collaboratory
3D scans of selected grave markers by the VCU Virtual Curation Lab
Veronica Davis, Here I Lay My Burdens Down: A History of the Black Cemeteries of Richmond, Virginia (Richmond: Dietz Press, 2000)
Gregg D. Kimball and Nancy Jawish Rives, “’To Live in Hearts We Leave Behind is Not to Die’: The Barton Heights Cemeteries of Richmond,” Virginia Cavalcade 46 (Winter 1997): 118-31
Denise I. Lester, NRHP report on Barton Heights Cemeteries, 2002, Virginia Department of Historic Resources
Ryan K. Smith, “Philip N. J. Wythe’s Headstone,” Southern Cultures 23 (Fall 2017): 39-46