Oakwood Cemetery is located on the east end of Richmond, between Nine Mile Road and Stony Run Parkway. Not much has been published on this burial ground. It was founded by the city in 1855, with the purchase of 60 rural acres overlooking Stony Run. Its initial design featured regular, squared plots following gently curved paths, representing the city government’s first foray into the rural cemetery model following the success of the private Hollywood Cemetery. The earliest burials on the city’s land here were African American paupers, but dozens of wealthier white Richmonders soon bought formal plots in Oakwood over the next few years.
During and after the Civil War, up to 17,000 Confederates were buried at Oakwood, with many of the dead arriving from nearby Chimborazo hospital. Gravediggers at Oakwood struggled to keep up with the rising numbers of wartime burials, and their labor was apparently supplemented at times by Union prisoners of war. Following the war, a ladies’ Oakwood Memorial Association formed in 1866 to care for this section, and their efforts culminated in a memorial obelisk centered in the Confederate section, raised in 1871.
In 1866, congregations Keneseth Israel and the short-lived Beth Israel received one acre within the cemetery for use as a Jewish burying ground. By 1882, this parcel was entirely in the hands of Keneseth Israel, and its success may have encouraged the founding of Sir Moses Montefiore Cemetery nearby later that decade.
In the 1880s, a public controversy arose over raids in this cemetery’s poor sections by graverobbers from MCV seeking anatomical specimens. The anatomical man Chris Baker and his accomplices were caught in the act by police but released from custody shortly thereafter.
In 1896, a lot bordering Oakwood and purchased by the Greenwood Memorial Association (the forerunner to East End Cemetery) was sold to the city for use as a “burying ground for colored paupers.” Hundreds of burials ensued. Just over a century later, in 2007, local historian Veronica Davis worked with the Richmond sheriff’s office and the city’s Department of Parks, Recreation, and Community Facilities to reclaim this lot as the “Colored Paupers Cemetery.”
Oakwood cemetery continues under city management today, although there is a new organization, the Oakwood Cemetery Restoration Committee, dedicated to improving and recognizing the Confederate section.
Podcast of James Netherwood (stoneworker), 1834-1898, by Raelyn Davis, Hassen Hafiz, and Ronald Romero:
“Oakwood: A Cemetery in Flux,” a history of Oakwood Cemetery’s first fifty years, by Hayden Hodges, 2014.
For more information, see:
Joseph D. Kyle, “A Densely Peopled Field of Death: Oakwood Cemetery,” Richmond Journal of History and Architecture 1 (Autumn 1994): 8-10.
T. Tyler Potterfield, Nonesuch Place: A History of the Richmond Landscape (Charleston, S.C.: History Press, 2009)
John S. Salmon, “Preliminary History of Confederate Section, Oakwood Cemetery,” Department of Historic Resources, 1997
Veronica Davis, Here I Lay My Burdens Down: A History of the Black Cemeteries of Richmond, Virginia (Richmond: Dietz Press, 2000)