Woodland Cemetery’s new owner

There is a new day for Woodland Cemetery, the final resting place of tennis champion Arthur Ashe and thousands of other black Richmonders. In early August 2020, Marvin Harris’s Evergreen Restoration Foundation purchased Woodland Cemetery from the Entzminger family – the remaining force behind the UK Corporation that had once also owned Evergreen Cemetery. Harris is an alumnus of Richmond’s Maggie Walker High School, class of 1967, and a local real estate professional. The cemetery should be in good hands under his leadership.

I first encountered Harris back in 2016 when he called my office to express a desire to get volunteers started again at Evergreen Cemetery, the resting place of his school’s namesake. A few years earlier, the core volunteers had moved from Evergreen Cemetery to the adjoining East End Cemetery following a disagreement with Isaiah Entzminger over the reclamation efforts at Evergreen. East End Cemetery benefited from the new attention, but Evergreen had begun to suffer, including in places where the volunteers had worked so hard to clear. Harris told me he thought he could get the work restarted, and sure enough he did, soon forming a Friends of Evergreen group that became the seed of his Evergreen Restoration Foundation nonprofit. Harris brought new volunteers to the site while the Friends of East End Cemetery formalized their efforts next door, and state delegate Delores McQuinn helped advance both via a bill that promised to offer new funding for these historic African American graves. Around that time in 2017, the Enrichmond Foundation announced that it had negotiated the purchase of Evergreen Cemetery from Isaiah Entzminger, aided by funding from the Virginia Outdoors Foundation.

With the changes in Evergreen’s ownership and the new state funding, Harris continued his volunteer leadership at Evergreen for a little while longer. But tensions with the new ownership emerged. Harris did not serve on the advisory committee the Enrichmond Foundation put together for Evergreen Cemetery, and he walked away from the whole effort a few times. I saw him working there most recently in December 2019 with a small group of others, around the time the Richmond Times Dispatch profiled his work.

The next thing I knew, Harris had turned his attention to Woodland Cemetery. Earlier, in 2018, Henrico county teacher Kathleen Harrell had sparked a new cleanup effort at Woodland, where management had suffered with Isaiah Entzminger’s advancing age, and the cemetery faced the usual challenges of dumping, vandalism, and encroaching overgrowth. Harrell was haunted by what she saw there, and she proved stalwart, showing up weekly with a growing number of volunteers to clear and care for the site alongside descendants. In turn, Woodland became a refuge for the longtime volunteers displaced by the Enrichmond Foundation at Evergreen and East End Cemeteries. By 2020, members of the Friends of East End worked at Woodland regularly.

Marvin Harris aided the effort, showing up for workdays, installing security cameras, and organizing supplies. But he also thought more broadly about Woodland’s future. So he launched a GoFundMe campaign in May 2020 to raise money for the cemetery’s purchase from the Entzminger family. Harris’s campaign quickly raised $10,000, and Henrico County offered a $25,000 grant in support. That, plus assistance from the Ashe family, enabled Harris to meet the sale price of $50,000. On August 12, a small, physically-distanced press conference was held at the cemetery to announce the news. There, Harris praised the work of the volunteers. “If I could clone these volunteers 100 times, it probably wouldn’t take us a long time to get this done,” he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, speaking of the work of Harrell, John Shuck, and companions. Amen to that, and a salute to this key cemetery’s future.