Oakwood Cemetery is located on the east end of Richmond, between Nine Mile Road and Stony Run Parkway. It was founded by the city in 1854, with the purchase of 60 rural acres overlooking Stony Run Creek. The land had previously been known as “Shore’s Farm,” and members of city council found the land “sufficiently undulating and hilly to render it picturesque.”
The property soon received the modish title of “Oakwood Cemetery,” representing the city government’s first foray into the rural cemetery model following the success of the private Hollywood Cemetery. The city engineer designed a formal plan, reminiscent of Hollywood’s plan, featuring winding, circuitous paths and sections set out in ranges. There the city sold family sections for “any white resident of the city” or county. Another section called the “public portion” was set aside for individual white citizens and strangers. Lastly, the city designated the low portions along the creeks on the property’s eastern edges “for the burial of colored persons.”
The earliest burials on the grounds were those of African Americans, as the Richmond Daily Dispatch reported in May 1855 that while the area reserved for white family sections was still being laid out, “that portion of the ground intended for ‘colored burials,’ is now ready for use, and a number of interments have already been made in it.” Dozens of wealthy white Richmonders soon bought formal plots in the family sections once they were ready. A superintendent moved into a house on the property, and the Daily Dispatch described it all as a “quiet, well-arranged, secluded city for the dead.”
The Civil War brought strain and transformation, however, as more than 16,000 dead would fill a section set aside at the start of the conflict for Confederate soldiers, with many of the dead arriving from nearby Chimborazo hospital. Most were privates or common soldiers. Gravediggers at Oakwood, several of whom were enslaved, 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 the group’s efforts culminated in a memorial obelisk centered in the Confederate section, raised in 1871. Funds from the legislatures of North Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi aided its construction.
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.
Across the broader cemetery, postwar prosperity brought grand family monuments to the grounds, including a growing number of substantial mausoleums. At the same time, Oakwood continued to serve as essential grounds for the city’s paupers and African Americans, especially after the closure of the city’s African American portion of the Shockoe Hill Burying Ground (also known as the “Potter’s Field”) in 1879. Two years prior to that transition, Oakwood’s superintendent reported that for the year ending in January 1877, there had been 245 burials of whites in Oakwood Cemetery compared with only 32 African American burials there.
In the early 1880s, public controversies arose over raids in this cemetery’s poor sections by graverobbers from the Medical College of Virginia seeking anatomical specimens. In 1882, the anatomical man Chris Baker and his accomplices were caught in the act by police but released from custody shortly thereafter following a pardon by the governor. A state anatomy law soon offered legal means to provide cadavers, but the depredations lingered in the memories of residents.
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.” Maps would mark it as the “Colored Paupers Cemetery.” 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 “Garden of Lillies.”
Oakwood cemetery continues under city management today, following expansions over the years that have brought its total size up to 176 acres. The cemetery officially desegregated with the rest of the city’s burial grounds after 1968, and its newest sections feature a sizable proportion of African American burials. On the other end of the cemetery, the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans works to improve and recognize the Confederate section.
Podcast of Thomas R. Johnston (Richmond firefighter), 1887?-1921, by Wendy Love and Katherine Schmitz:
Podcast of James Netherwood (stoneworker), 1834-1898, by Raelyn Davis, Hassen Hafiz, and Ronald Romero:
For more information, see:
Veronica Davis, Here I Lay My Burdens Down: A History of the Black Cemeteries of Richmond, Virginia (Richmond: Dietz Press, 2000)
John S. Kindred, Rescued From Oblivion: Confederate Burials at Oakwood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia (2018)
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,” Virginia Department of Historic Resources, 1997