My introduction to John Sydnor

Lots of folks I have been hearing from have been concerned about the recent acquisition of Evergreen Cemetery by the Enrichmond Foundation. I am still mystified as to why the local media has largely ignored this development. As far as I can tell, Jerry Lazarus’s June 2 article in the Richmond Free Press is the only one out there [update: the Richmond Times-Dispatch‘s Michael Paul Williams did issue a meaningful story on the development on June 26, 2017]. In my mind, this news is as consequential as the reclaiming of the African Burial Ground in Shockoe Bottom, given the thousands of historic burials and markers at risk at Evergreen.

Today I met with John Sydnor, executive director of the Enrichmond Foundation, for a long conversation about the acquisition. Like me, Sydnor’s a white guy with an interest in this region’s whole history. He’s got two degrees from VCU, in history and in public policy, and he cites anti-poverty guru John Moeser as a mentor.

In my impressions from this one conversation, I find that he and his foundation have done a good amount of homework. Sydnor first visited Evergreen nine years ago and worked a bit with John Shuck, with whom he is rightfully impressed. Sydnor tells me that Enrichmond cultivated a relationship with Evergreen’s previous owner in a campaign for six years in order to negotiate its transfer. Upon finally reaching an agreement, the foundation paid $140,000 of its own (raised) funds for the recent sale, plus more funds beyond that to clear federal, state, and local tax liens. The foundation expects to use the Virginia Outdoors Foundation’s grant to cover conservation easement expenses [to protect the site from future private development] and other upcoming expenses. For Sydnor’s motivations for all this effort, I didn’t get much beyond what he has already issued in the initial press release and the Q&A follow-up mentioned in my previous post. In our conversation, I believe I heard him telling me that he saw no other legal option forward for a place he understood to have profound meaning.

Enrichmond Foundation is now working with the court system to acquire the legally-abandoned East End Cemetery. And the foundation is seeking transfer from the city of the historically-black portions of Oakwood Cemetery and the Paupers Cemetery adjoining it to the west, thereby consolidating all the African American graves to the east of Stony Run Parkway.

Appropriately enough, Sydnor did not want to speculate as to why the Friends volunteer groups sought to break off from Enrichmond to create their own, independent organizations. In response, I suggested that for an effort in the works for six years, the communications and the transparency of the news roll-out this year has been disappointing. Why wouldn’t the new owners want more community buy-in, descendant buy-in, volunteer buy-in? Surely the cemeteries deserve and need all of these now. Sydnor didn’t dispute my critique of the roll-out, but he pointed to a need to protect the site from potentially unscrupulous competitive bidders during the process. I’m not sure of the identity of those competitive bidders.

It seems odd to me that the city government has apparently given its backing to the Evergreen project via Enrichmond, but that the city will not be taking on ownership of the historic sections per se. I am not a nonprofit expert – maybe this scenario has to do with the ability to secure grant funding and charitable giving, or maybe it has to do with the current position of the city’s Parks and Recreation department.

Sydnor is new to me. My previous post left off with the worry that the community was now faced with choosing sides between John Shuck’s transformative cohort or the new Enrichmond ownership. There has always been the lingering concern of the legal fate of Evergreen and East End. In that limbo, vandalism at the site has continued, through dumping, theft, and destruction, as the volunteers know too well. This transfer may provide a better, public legal standing for the site’s future; especially if the new management is as inclusive as the tone of Sydnor’s remarks suggested to me. After all, Enrichmond is a public entity, and we should all have access to information about its governance, board meetings, etc., right? However, the Friends, whom I know and trust and who have invested a tremendous amount of sweat equity and moral capital in the site, dispute much of Sydnor’s explanations. And, especially worrisome to me, Sydnor did not respond when I asked him directly if he could envision a scenario in which, say, John Shuck would be prevented from working on the site, and drawing people there…

Whether this is the only viable future for these cemeteries, or empire-building on the part of a nonprofit foundation, Enrichmond is now at the helm.

2 responses to “My introduction to John Sydnor”

  1. Evonne Cobby Avatar
    Evonne Cobby

    Thanks, Evonne Cobby for

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