Discovering unmarked graves at East End Cemetery

East End Cemetery, like the adjoining Evergreen Cemetery, the city’s “Colored Paupers Cemetery,” and so many other historic African American cemeteries, features a very large number of unmarked graves. Starting in 2013, the volunteer Friends of East End Cemetery pushed back the overgrowth to uncover and identify over 3,300 grave markers at East End, all viewable on this map created from the Friends’ painstaking survey work along with the East End Cemetery Collaboratory.

But this number of the newly-identified represents a fraction of the estimated 15,000 burials at this cemetery. Over time, vandals destroyed markers, temporary markers were lost, and some burials may never have received markers at all. Yet proper understanding and recognition of the grounds requires the identification and protection of as many burial plots as possible.

Enter the scientific wizardry of University of Richmond faculty member Steph Spera and her student Matthew Franklin, along with the U.R. Spatial Analysis Lab’s resident expert Beth Zizzamia. Longtime members of the Collaboratory, the team pioneered a low-cost method using simple drone imaging paired with over-the-counter software to spot unmarked graves using hydrologic (water pooling) analysis. They invited me to join them to help contextualize and convey their findings, and the result is our recent article published in the International Journal of Historical Archaeology, available here, and profiled here. In short, our team identified 8,000 likely grave locations that had been previously unidentified, including graves along the border of the adjoining the Colored Paupers site.

This innovation is exciting because other techniques used elsewhere for the same ends have been difficult to adopt widely. Previous techniques involved either invasive, undesirable archaeological excavations, or expensive and highly specialized technology in the form of ground penetrating radar or drone systems with complex modifications. Our team’s approach could eliminate those barriers for similar sites across the country.

At East End, our method can help to re-populate a difficult site and refocus efforts to center the stories of those interred there. For example, we may not be able to locate the specific grave of Pat Braxton, who worked as a driver before his death at 59 years old in 1914, or of Mabel Mildred Adams, who died at 60 years in 1962 while receiving treatment at St. Philip’s Hospital, but we can now see ranges of specific graves where those burials may have taken place, surrounded by their broader community and amid those with markers that do survive. Combined with oral history, our technique can help restore the places of such burials on the memorial landscape.

Unfortunately, our Collaboratory’s work at East End Cemetery has largely been halted along with that of our community partners by the Enrichmond Foundation, the new, publicly-funded owners of East End. A review of what brought us to this scenario can be found here and here and here. On the day our team showed up for recent photos at East End Cemetery — on a Tuesday morning at 11:00am — we were initially blocked by a gate across the road despite Enrichmond’s website proclaiming that “Evergreen is a public cemetery, open between dawn and dusk.” We wish that we had a reliable, responsive partner in this current property owner to work with on this project.