In 1791, two years after the founding of congregation Beth Shalome in Richmond, Isaiah Isaacs deeded a rectangular portion of his garden on Middle Street (now Franklin Street) to nine trustees. It was “to be used solely for the purpose of a burying ground” for “the Jews now residing in the City of Richmond” and their descendants as well as “for all other Jews that shall at any time hereafter die in the City of Richmond or whose bodies after death may be brought there to be interred.”
The rectangular plot was forty feet wide and one hundred and two feet deep, located on the south side of Franklin Street between Twenty-first Street and Twenty-second Street, where Church Hill bottomed out toward the waterfront. Isaacs retained a small reserve in the rear corner of the lot for his family and for the family of his business partner, Jacob Cohen. It was the first Jewish burial ground in the state and the group’s first claim on the landscape, freeing these residents from informal burials on their home properties or in the city’s churchyard above.
The burial site was well used and soon filled. The opening of Hebrew Cemetery across town in 1816 would put this older site in the business district at risk. One Jewish newcomer in the 1830s found that two ledger markers were the only tombs still visible there. Apparently, at some point following the opening of Hebrew Cemetery, an effort had been made to relocate graves from Franklin Street to the new site. Jacob Ezekiel would recall that “several re-interments were made from the Franklin street burying-ground into the new ground; the tombs of those remaining were laid flat and covered with earth.”
By 1866, the Richmond Daily Dispatch described the quiet site as “a vacant lot, overrun with rank weeds and grass, showing the track of wagons and bearing the hoofmark of horses, and which is washed into deep ruts and gullies by the rains of many a season.”
In the first decade of the twentieth century, representatives from Congregation Beth Ahabah, into which Beth Shalome had merged, led the recovery of the landmark. The grounds were cleared, a wall was erected on the perimeter, and an iron fence set along the front. Leaders raised a sign above the entrance gate proclaiming it the “First Jewish Cemetery in Virginia, 1791,” reclaiming the identity of the lot. In 1955, another rededication ceremony was held at the site, on the occasion of the tricentennial anniversary of Jewish settlement in America.
A five-story apartment complex encircled the burial ground’s three borders in 2011. The grounds continue to be maintained by Beth Ahabah.
Myron Berman, Richmond’s Jewry, 1769-1976: Shabbat in Shockoe (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia for the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond, 1979)
Herbert T. Ezekiel and Gaston Lichtenstein, The History of the Jews of Richmond From 1769 to 1917 (Richmond, Va.: Herbert T. Ezekiel, 1917)