New! From stonecarver J. Henry Brown

One of the great “Treasures from the Collections of the Library of Virginia” is the set of 12 order books from the J. Henry Brown Monuments company dating from 1899 through 1920. Brown established his Richmond shop in 1885, where he specialized in creating gravestones. His order books contain thousands of detailed entries, documenting markers erected in almost every cemetery in central Virginia. These volumes cross racial, religious, and economic boundaries and are the only surviving records for many markers that no longer exist. The volumes (acquired by the state library in 1953/1954) are also beautifully rendered with vivid artistic details and instructions from customers.

In May 2022, one of the most unusual occurrences of my professional life resulted in my discovery of fourteen additional surviving volumes from that same series by the J. Henry Brown shop, spanning from 1928 through 1958. The additional order books were just as rich in artistic and genealogical detail as the initial, known volumes. How I found them is a good story best told offline.

I immediately shared the volumes with my colleagues in the Richmond Cemetery Collaboratory and made plans to transfer them to the Library of Virginia, to add to the original holdings. We scanned and digitized them, making them available online. Cemetery citizen John Shuck coordinated volunteers to photograph the earlier volumes and make the online collection complete. At the same time, John went through the volumes entry-by-entry and created a master spreadsheet. He found that for the 1928-1958 volumes, there are nearly 16,000 names listed, with just over half of those orders placed for burials in seven Richmond cemeteries: Maury, Hollywood, Woodland, Forest Lawn, Evergreen, Riverview, and Oakwood. Other orders came from much farther away, from Maryland through South Carolina.

In February 2024 I delivered all the newest order books to the Library of Virginia, assisted there by Trenton Hizer, Sonya Coleman, and Jessica Bennett.

We can now unveil the results of this activity at a public event on Friday, April 26, 2024, at 5:15pm at the Library of Virginia’s main lobby. “Grave Artistry: New Findings from the J. Henry Brown Order Books” is free and open to everyone. The program will consist of a brief reception with food and displays, followed by a program intended to introduce the public to the order books. At that program, the LVA’s Trenton Hizer will review the library’s engagement with the volumes, U.R.’s Jeannine Keefer will discuss the digitization, volunteers John Shuck and Alice Jones will illustrate the use of the order books in cemetery reclamation efforts, U.R.’s Elizabeth Baughan will showcase her research on repurposed furnishings in the order books, and I will give a brief overview of Brown’s different marker types serving different populations. All of this will be concluded with a final reflection from Duke’s Adam Rosenblatt, a founding member of the Durham Black Burial Grounds Collaboratory and author of the fantastic forthcoming study, Cemetery Citizens: Reclaiming the Past and Working for Justice in American Burial Grounds.

We hope attendees will be energized by the possibilities for engaging with Brown’s legacy — archival and material — across the memorial landscape.