Three minutes each at the horror show

Imagine having ancestors buried in Richmond’s East End Cemetery, or simply caring about this important and historic site.

Then, imagine learning that the site’s new owner, the Enrichmond Foundation, discovered human remains exposed at a crumbling bank on July 20, 2020, around the same time that the Foundation had blocked longtime volunteer leaders from continuing work there.

Imagine the news media arrived on the site that day, where staff of the Enrichmond Foundation allowed reporters to photograph and then broadcast images of those exposed remains. Images of the bones would linger on the television station’s website for days.

Next, imagine that the Virginia Department of Historic Resources subsequently schedules a public hearing on the handling of those remains and Enrichmond’s role therein. Imagine it is billed as a “community conversation” to “discuss” the newfound remains.

Imagine that the hearing is scheduled for an awkward time on a Friday night at 7:00pm, on October 23. Attendees must pre-register with a username and password for the online WebEx platform, and anyone wishing to speak or ask questions must request that opportunity beforehand.

Imagine that someone like myself registers quickly, but then hears nothing else about the format or whether I will be allowed to ask my question.

Imagine the hearing beginning promptly at 7:00pm on Friday, October 23 via WebEx, where some users have difficulty with the login or the technology. Imagine 42 attendees getting through for the hearing.

Then imagine DHR director Julie Langan, DHR deputy director Stephanie Willliams, DHR archaeologist Joanna Wilson Green, and Enrichmond Foundation director John Sydnor presenting a line of white faces atop the screen directing the proceedings. After the preliminaries, John Sydnor makes an introductory statement of general platitudes in which he does not mention at all the airing of images of the remains on the local news media.

Next, imagine Green presenting, for the very first time, the preliminary forensic findings of the study of the discovered bones, which had been carefully transferred to the DHR for study and temporary holding. In that moment, she informs attendees that the bones were those of at least 9 individuals whose remains were collected in a wooden box sometime around the turn of the twentieth century and then buried in the no-man’s land between East End Cemetery, Evergreen Cemetery, and the city’s “Colored Paupers Cemetery.” It is at that very moment that Green reveals that the bones show signs of saw marks, of postmortem anatomical study/dissection. This fact points immediately to the area’s traumatic history of graverobbing for anatomical specimens, in which black bodies were consistently preyed upon and then callously, painfully discarded like trash, as at the East Marshall Street Well at the Medical College of Virginia in the mid-1800s. Further, these new findings at East End Cemetery, and their mishandling by Enrichmond, point to this same pattern of fumbling the discovery of such remains and making the awful situation even worse.

Now, NOW imagine that into the following shocked web silence, DHR’s Stephanie Williams turns the hearing over to those who signed up for public comment one by one, where attendees had prepared to discuss the initial handling and intended future of the unidentified remains.

Imagine, if you will, that someone like myself is somehow first in line to comment or ask a question, so one’s name is immediately called without warning.

Imagine trying to formulate one’s thoughts in this moment. Imagine having prepared a question about whether Enrichmond’s staff should have sought continuity in their handling of newly discovered remains with the previous 7 years of volunteer procedures on the site. Now that question sounds beside the point given the gravity of the revelations. Imagine still sitting in shock at the news. Imagine stammering out a plea, a question, about when will our institutions stop exposing these painful images to the media for circulation. Imagine John Sydnor looking away from the camera and keeping silent throughout this and every subsequent question or comment in the hearing. There would be no answers.

Now, NOW imagine a parade of appalled descendants taking their turns when, without warning, their name among the signups for comment is called. Imagine they are all given 3 minutes each to speak, no longer. 3 minutes each at the horror show. Imagine longtime volunteer and descendant Brian Palmer in his 3 minutes calling for a descendant-led council or a civilian review board, like the Family Representative Council at VCU’s East Marshall Street Well, positioned in a decision-making role alongside the Enrichmond Foundation. Imagine someone like Jarene Fleming, who once served on Enrichmond’s advisory board for Evergreen Cemetery, and whose family’s place at the historic cemeteries goes back for generations, calling out in profound emotional tones the “exploitation then and now” of her ancestors.

Now, NOW imagine these same voices of the descendants being summarily cut off without warning, literally cutting their mics mid-sentence in the heights of their expressions by the DHR team, in the name of bureaucratic niceties at the end of each three minutes. Imagine watching this and trying to make sense of white leaders cutting off, and failing to address, these speakers in such a fraught moment. The scenario was made worse by the fact that none of the public attendees could be seen via camera nor see each other, so they were invisible, too. 

This is what it felt like for 3 minutes each at this horror show.

Needless to say, just about every aspect of it was unacceptable.

The last speaker called was Maurice Hopkins, an accomplished Richmonder with family at Evergreen Cemetery who serves on Enrichmond’s advisory board for that cemetery. He spoke in support of the oft-endorsed call that evening for a civilian review board to be established, in a separate structure from that of the advisory board on which he serves. With quiet intensity, he stated that the current advisory board had “no authority to decide anything regarding the found bones.” It felt like a tipping point when Enrichmond’s own advisor here sought some greater way to hold the organization accountable.

In brief remarks at the end of the public comment period, Joanna Wilson Green, Stephanie Williams, and Julie Langan apologized if their information or facilitation of the hearing had caused any pain, which it clearly had. “Some of you may feel blindsided” by the information, they acknowledged. Green in particular was effusive in stating that she had just learned the results of the forensics study herself only days earlier, and she emphatically invited further engagement with her office. 

For his part, John Sydnor offered a few subdued sentences at the end in which he promised to take the comments received “and incorporate them as best we can,” all without providing any answers on the summer’s events or the future.

I was prepared for a difficult evening. I had no idea how difficult it would be. I left the meeting with renewed appreciation for the ability of black Richmonders to encounter such horrors and find ways to move forward, to keep trying to make things right. I cherish the demonstration of such resilience.

We now have a second anatomical “well” at Enrichmond’s East End Cemetery, handled poorly by DHR as well as Enrichmond. We have to do better.

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