East End goes the way things go

Today I attended the court hearing which ruled on the Enrichmond Foundation‘s request to acquire East End Cemetery. It was a depressing spectacle.

We got here because the directors of the East End Burial Association all died out, and its corporation was dissolved by the state, leaving its assets (the 16-acre historic cemetery) in legal limbo. Enrichmond filed a petition to acquire it.

Enrichmond, however, did not inform the Friends of East End Cemetery — the current stewards of the site who had been tending it daily for more than five years — of the proceedings. That says a lot.

Instead, Enrichmond posted their petition in Style Weekly and the state attorney general’s office reviewed feedback on the petition after word finally got out. In December 2018, the attorney general’s office issued no objection to the acquisition. So we landed in court today to decide the cemetery’s legal fate.

A few scenes from the proceedings stand out:

  • The opening, all-white cast of Enrichmond and its lawyer against the only black resident attending the hearing behind the Friends of East End.
  • Enrichmond’s lawyer explaining to the judge that the entity has been “interested” in East End Cemetery since 2011. The lawyer’s explanation that Enrichmond has sought to be “aboveboard” in its proceedings and to invite public comment at all stages.
  • The lawyer’s explanation that Enrichmond could not access the full $400,000 grant from the Virginia Outdoors Foundation until it had title to East End Cemetery.
  • Executive director John Sydnor’s admission that his organization is now seeking the transfer of adjoining “colored pauper” burial sections owned by the city.
  • The defense lawyer, representing Mark Herring’s office and the people of Virginia, asking no questions and admitting that she had never been to see the cemetery.
  • The steady testimony given by Brian Palmer, Erin Hollaway Palmer, and Brenda Jones on behalf of the Friends, asking the judge to move Enrichmond to uphold the “partner” status originally agreed upon and guarantee access to the site.
  • The return by John Sydnor that the Friends of East End would be treated as any other volunteer group at the cemetery.
  • The judge’s final ruling acknowledging that the site needs a legal owner and granting Enrichmond’s petition, appointing its head counsel as the special commissioner to write it all up despite the latter’s acknowledgment that he had never served as such before.
  • The judge’s expression of sympathy for the Friends of East End before telling Enrichmond’s representatives that “I am forced to do what you all are asking me to do.” “This is what I have to do from a legal standpoint.”
  • Palmer’s quotable reaction alongside Jones’s faith-based optimism moving forward.

So we get what projects in Richmond have seemingly always gotten: an expedient, top-down solution from whites without buy-in from all segments of the community. Only the dead are at rest.

4 responses to “East End goes the way things go”

  1. Ellen Chapman Avatar
    Ellen Chapman

    This is so disappointing. I’ll just add that a year or two ago at a “public outreach” meeting, the proposals put forth by Enrichmond included recreational bike and walking trails and building a cafe at the cemetery. It very much felt like they were looking to monetize it or create a historic amenity rather than be cemetery stewards. The numbers of volunteers led by East End Friends and the volunteer collective is much greater than the work this non-profit is doing, while they get their grant administrative fees etc. They seem unwilling to surrender the least little modicum of control to the people who bleed and sweat and work over this cemetery every week despite getting the grant largely on the basis of this work. There was no visible public, competitive decision-making process to decide on Enrichmond versus another non-profit – like for example Preservation Virginia, which already manages historic properties, or Groundwork RVA, which does community-based and inclusive work in Richmond. I also was called by Enrichmond staff in summer 2016 and they tried to get me to act as an academic veneer on a grant they were applying for (emphasized that they were interested in my credentials and that I didn’t really need to write much of the grant), and when I asked them how they were deciding what to research and how they were being guided by the descendant community groups, they had no answer and stopped calling. They should stick to bacon festivals.

  2. Anonymous Descendent Avatar
    Anonymous Descendent

    The title of this piece is exactly right on point. East End goes the way things go… in Richmond. Where the historically disenfranchised remain disenfranchised. Where the elite white machinery continues to dictate and weld power over the black community. Our (descendent) families have struggled for generations to care for these grounds ourselves or by paying out of pocket for others to do so while our tax dollars went to pay for maintenance of those buried up the hill. The city of Richmond wouldn’t take responsibility saying that the property was in the county and when we went to the county for help they sent us back to the city. We were run around and ignored. Now that money is available for the restoration effort to begin in earnest, the grassroots people are being pushed out. Enrichmond, an organization with no track record for dealing with sensitive historic properties or compassionate community relations is given a blank check. Enriching itself. Its a shame. East End goes the way things go, in Richmond.

  3. RyanSmith Avatar

    The icing on this cake: as of March 2019, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources has been holding up all the state funds awarded to East End Cemetery for the upkeep of historic African American graves (available under House Bill 1547 and its successor) until the DHR can award those funds directly to the Enrichmond Foundation after its acquisition of East End is finalized.
    The Friends of East End Cemetery, a duly-constituted 501c3 eligible for funding support under the terms of the state act, had applied to the DHR for these funds in 2017 and 2018. But the DHR put off the Friends’ applications – first informing them that the application process had not been finalized, and then ignoring their application after funds were dispersed to other entities under the act.
    A different set of standards is being applied to the Friends and to Enrichmond, with no transparency or publicity for the state’s awarding process. Not only is this unethical, it is as if the state and Enrichmond are going out of their way to insult the current volunteers.

  4. […] would like to see an explanation from the Enrichmond Foundation, de jure owners of the site following decisions from the state and the Richmond circuit court in […]

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