State funding extended for African American graves

Last week, Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin signed into law Senate Bill 477 and House Bill 140, together the work of Senator Jennifer McClellan and Delegate Delores McQuinn. The new rules expand the basis for eligibility under the Virginia Historical African American Cemeteries and Grave Fund. Previously, the state provided maintenance funding for the total number of marked African American graves for those who lived any time between 1800 and 1900. The new law extends that eligibility to those who were interred prior to 1948. That 1948 date is significant because it reaches through the whole period leading up to consequential legal challenges to segregation, as with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelley v. Kraemer in 1948 that struck down states’ ability to enforce racially restrictive covenants in land deeds (and hence cemetery plots).

Further, the new Virginia law affirms that the count for each eligible cemetery can “be determined by reference to grave markers or, at the discretion of the Director, other historical records,” meaning that funding for upkeep does not need to be tied to the existing number of grave markers.

Today, East End Cemetery is the largest recipient of those state funds, with 4,875 state-recognized, eligible burials at $5 per grave annually. That money goes to the Enrichmond Foundation, the cemetery’s muddled owner. The public is invited to see the results of those expenditures: “A qualified organization receiving funds shall expend the funds for the routine maintenance of its historical African American cemetery, associated graves, and graves certified by the Department and documented in the Department’s cultural resources database and the erection of and caring for markers, memorials, and monuments to the memory of such African Americans.”

Locally, this raises the encouraging prospect of funding many more historic cemeteries, including Woodland Cemetery, headed by Marvin Harris’s stalwart Woodland Restoration Foundation. Miracles have been happening at Woodland without a steady stream of state funding, so I am excited to see what’s to come.