Meeting Up with the Joneses by Erin Hollaway Palmer + Brian Palmer

Yesterday was an East End Cemetery day for us, as are most Saturdays that we’re at home, in Richmond. By the time we arrived—we were on the late side—the site was humming with activity. Regular volunteer and Friend of East End Mark had briefed a crew on the cemetery’s history and best practices for clearing plots. Members of the group had grabbed tools and were already migrating toward a semi-cleared section to pick up where a team had left off last Sunday. Melissa, another core volunteer and Friend, was a few yards away talking to a multigenerational group with a dynamic and composition—from little squirts to seniors—that telegraphed family.

None of us had seen the Jones at East End before. They had come to tend the family plot for the first time in years after hearing that much of the place had been reclaimed from nature by volunteers. Fred Jones, the oldest member of the cleanup squad, told me that he had come out many years ago with his father, Alexander, to tend the plot before he was laid to rest there alongside his wife, Cora Belle Mebane. Most times his dad soloed, he said—he was happy doing the weed pulling and brush removal himself, and he did it until he was 90 years old. The family tried to keep up the work after Alexander passed in 1994, but they couldn’t beat back the vegetation that grew in the dozens of untended plots around theirs. Family member Debra Cain chose this day, March 31, to reunite the family at East End and to revive the tradition her grandfather had started. They came more than a dozen strong. With rakes, leaf blowers, and hands, they gathered bucket after bucket of flora from the Jones plot, plus those abutting it and several beyond. 

Why does a single meeting on a single day with this family matter? To us, it represents a handful of small victories. It is a direct and living link—13 links to be exact—to a place we have cared for and the people buried there, whose histories we are trying to reclaim. It is the kind of recognition that matters most—smiling, talking, connecting with descendants for whom this ground is sacred and vital, as it is to us.

Along with other Friends of East End, Erin and I have been at this work, peeling back decades of overgrowth from a historic black cemetery, for more than three years. We came to East End originally, in 2014, to shoot video. As we were gathering stories about and images of Magruder and my great-grandparents, Mat and Julia Palmer, through archival research and interviewing, we wanted to show people revealing African American history, literally, with their hands. This was happening, stone by stone, at East End.

East End quickly became much more than a visual proxy for Old Orchard, the cemetery on Camp Peary where we were no longer allowed to shoot for the documentary. We learned that to make the ground talk at East End—first, to pull long-buried grave markers from tangles of vines and inches of soil; and second, to glean information from databases about the people memorialized on these stones—was to make the ground talk for all of Virginia’s displaced, disregarded, disenfranchised, and dispossessed black communities. Not that their stories are interchangeable. We have found no significant connections between East End and Old Orchard families (yet), but we have learned through our research into 19th- and early-20th-century Richmond and Magruder that the histories dovetail. The afterlife of Jim Crow, as Erin terms it, is as evident at East End as it was to us at Old Orchard—and in the lives of those at rest in both places. Moreover, the stories we uncover at East End, such as that of William I. Johnson—who, like Mat, was enslaved in Goochland County and freed himself to fight in the Civil War—augment and complement what we learn about Old Orchard. It is with this knowledge, both specific and contextual, that we return to the Magruder story. —BP

From a Time Before Stokely: the Black Power America Needs Today, Tomorrow, and Thereafter by Erin Hollaway Palmer + Brian Palmer

Knowledge and inspiration for Election Day, November 8, 2016— and every day thereafter:

Fellow East End volunteer Bruce Tarr sent me this December 6, 1919 front page from the Richmond Planet, the city's black newspaper. Recall that 1919 was the year of Red Summer, when a wave of white mob attacks against black people and lynchings swept the country—from Connecticut to San Francisco, and all over the South. No coincidence that this violence happened on the heels of World War I, from which black veterans returned tested and hardened by battle. Many would not willingly bow down to Jim Crow again. When struck, they struck back.

At the end of this bloody year, the Planet, at the time the most outspoken black paper in the South, published a front page drawing by George H. Ben Johnson: BLACK POWER, How Will He Use it? This was half a century before Stokely Carmichael. Johnson and Planet editor John Mitchell weren't talking about identity or symbolism—nothing wrong with that. In fact, this is our focus: how true stories of the black experience build a foundation of knowledge that allow us to feel—to know—that we strong, accomplished,  fully American, and so much better than the propaganda that asserts we are less than others.

But this was a straight-up toolbox view of black power—the power of the laborer, the farmer. And the voter. News we can use about tools we have at our disposal. Right now.

A New Headstone for Dr. Tancil by Erin Hollaway Palmer + Brian Palmer

Many of you might remember that a headstone went missing from East End last summer. It belonged to Dr. Richard F. Tancil, a remarkable man who was born into slavery circa 1852, went on to earn his MD at Howard University, and set up a medical practice in Richmond’s Church Hill neighborhood, where he also founded a bank. According to his great-granddaughter-in-law, the family archivist, he was beloved by his wife, children, and grandchildren, who remembered him as funny, generous, and kind.

Now, thanks to supporters near and far, Friends of East End will be dedicating a new marker for Dr. Tancil at noon on Saturday, October 22. We hope you’ll join us! —B&E

It's the Looking That Matters: An Update on the Documentary by Erin Hollaway Palmer + Brian Palmer

I wonder some days—and almost every night as I try to sleep—if we’ll ever collect enough information and pictures to tell a solid story about Magruder and the everyday pioneers who built it. So much of that history has been erased—or was never recorded.

We have found precious pieces of evidence and information in the four years that we’ve been working on Make the Ground Talk. Archivists helped us unearth my great-grandfather Mat Palmer’s Union pension application. From that collection of papers, we gleaned a heap of vital facts, chief among them that Mat had been enslaved and that his last owner was a man named Alexander Maben Hobson.

Our cousin Ann led us to the photo of Mat on the wall of Mt. Pilgrim Baptist Church. Through the Freedom of Information Act, we have obtained government documents relating to the 1942 eviction. At Camp Peary, we visited the graves of Mat and Julia Palmer and other Magruderites at Old Orchard Cemetery.

Scanning her way through thousands of pages, digital and paper, Erin found connections to both sides in the Civil War. We visited the neighborhood where her great-grandparents, descendants of Confederates, lived in Gadsden, Alabama, and found the grave of their (and Erin’s) forebear, “H. M. Stripling Confederate Soldier,” a few counties and one state line east, in Rome, Georgia.

The finding is fantastic. Tracking down each piece of information and visiting each place after months of researching and puzzling, feels wonderful, electric.

For a few moments, we imagine that we’ve cracked the code. Maybe the story will fall into place because we have found this one fragment. And then we settle down.

The finding is rare. Long stretches of nothing—or nothing significant—pass now that we have found the low-hanging fruit, and I gather much of the mid-hanging fruit, too. Digging through archives and attics, poring over microfilm, and poking around cemeteries that just may offer some clues gets old, tedious, frustrating. And although we have found good material, the gaps in the puzzle—of Magruder and the lives of Mat and Julia Palmer—are still larger than the collection of pieces that we have assembled.

 Map of property in the Magruder, VA, area condemned and taken by the U.S. government to build the naval construction training center at Camp Peary, April, 2, 1943

Map of property in the Magruder, VA, area condemned and taken by the U.S. government to build the naval construction training center at Camp Peary, April, 2, 1943

Massive questions remain. There is little trace of Julia in the historical record. There are maddening holes in Mat’s story—among them, what made him choose to settle in York County, Virginia, after serving in the Civil War? When did he live in Richmond, as his Union pension application says he did? Why do facts about the “Mathew Palmer” living in Richmond who we find in the census not match up with what we know about our Mat? What have we got wrong? And what have we got right?

In doing all of this hunting and pecking, we have learned a lot about ourselves, about history—Virginian, African American, American—and we have found that others are searching along the same lines. And we have learned one lesson that now sustains us: It’s the looking that matters.

The looking—the process of researching, visiting, interviewing—itself strengthens and affirms our faith in the power of our past and in the people whose stories we’re telling. And we have become part of a diverse and diffuse community of searchers, amateur and professional, gathering textual and physical fragments that allow us to tell truer stories of the American past.

All this to say that our looking goes on and will continue for at least another couple of years. We are assembling the pieces of the documentary film, slowly, with guidance from our advisers, family, and friends. I can’t say when the doc will be complete. I have tried this before and been very wrong. But I will say that we have left Brooklyn and bought a house in Richmond, in Church Hill, where we have rented for two years. We’re committed to this project, to this process, the people and history we are researching, and our new friends, colleagues, and neighbors. We’ll be sending out periodic updates such as this one to give people a better sense of our progress. —BP

This Week on Instagram by Erin Hollaway Palmer + Brian Palmer

Smithsonian magazine has handed over its Instagram account to Brian this week. He'll be posting photographs of East End, Evergreen, and more through Friday. The images document historic yet abandoned Richmond-area cemeteries, the communities they once served, and the contemporary community that is evolving around the restoration of these places. Taken as a whole, they explore how certain aspects of our past have been diminished, discarded, and almost erased while others have been venerated, even fetishized. Keep an eye out! 

Summering at the Cemetery by Erin Hollaway Palmer + Brian Palmer

We've been back in Virginia full-time since Memorial Day weekend, settling into our RVA rhythm after four-plus months in New York. We never expected to be Richmonders, but we're increasingly at home here—returning felt right. A big part of that is our work at East End Cemetery, which has connected us to people, places, and history we might never have known.

And so much has happened since we've been back! Seemingly out of the blue, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, a state-chartered agency, awarded East End and neighboring Evergreen a $400,000 grant—seed money for their preservation in perpetuity. The following week, VA Governor Terry McAuliffe made a statement at the cemetery in support of the grant. That was a surreal moment. (When a fellow volunteer asked Thomas Taylor, who has maintained his family's plot for decades, whether he ever thought a sitting governor would visit East End, he said, with a wry laugh and not a moment's hesitation, "Only if he was being buried here.")

On the same day McAuliffe came, a mini-herd of goats from Bright Hope Farm & Apiary arrived on the scene, part of a trial to see whether the voracious nibblers can help us tame some of the rampant overgrowth that still obscures much of the cemetery. Over the course of several days, other goats were cycled in and managed to pack away a goodly patch of greenery.

Meanwhile, we've continued our documentation of the cleanup effort. Buzzfeed recently published a gallery of Brian's photographs with a piece he wrote about recent developments at East End. It's hovering around 100K views—so keep clicking!

In Search of the Rev. and Mrs. W. F. Graham by Erin Hollaway Palmer + Brian Palmer

 The grave of Rev. Wesley F. Graham and Josephine A. (Shields) Graham, Mount Lawn Cemetery, Philadelphia, March 2016. Photo: BP

The grave of Rev. Wesley F. Graham and Josephine A. (Shields) Graham, Mount Lawn Cemetery, Philadelphia, March 2016. Photo: BP

A few weeks ago, after hours paging through a trove of documents at the Philadelphia branch of the National Archives, we stopped at Mount Lawn Cemetery on the south side of town. What is it about you guys and cemeteries? you ask. Well, this one, according to my research, was the final resting place of a prominent Richmond pastor and his wife. The Rev. W. F. Graham pops up all over the Richmond Planet, the African American paper of record at the turn of the 20th century. As the pastor of Fifth Street Baptist Church, he preached the funeral service of longtime deacon Alexander Jonathan, who died in 1908 and is buried at East End Cemetery. (We've grown attached to the Jonathans since uncovering one of their family plots last spring.)

I had wondered, of course, whether the Rev. Graham and his wife might be buried at East End as well, but their graves were not among those that have been uncovered so far, and in my initial online searches I could find no death record for either of them. I looked again a couple of months ago and came across the death certificate of one of their sons, who died in Philadelphia, and after a little more digging, I found the Rev. Graham's. According to that document, he too died in Philadelphia, on June 13, 1932, at the age of 74. He was born in Mississippi circa 1858, and somehow made his way to Washington, D.C., where he married Josephine A. Shields, also from Mississippi and the daughter of the Rev. A. W. Shields, on March 12, 1884. Both, presumably, were born into slavery—I have found no records to suggest otherwise at this point. Besides, antebellum Mississippi's free black population was negligible: There were apparently fewer than 1,000 free people of color in the state in the decade before the Civil War.

The Grahams (who, incidentally, made for a lovely couple—click on the links above for portraits of both) arrived in Richmond in 1892. Before assuming the leadership of Fifth Street Baptist, the Rev. Graham had been pastor of Third Baptist Church in Alexandria and then of Loyal Street Baptist Church in Danville. An 1890 Richmond Planet piece had this to say about him: "No locality is blessed with a more open-hearted people than this 'city on the Dan.' The ministers wield a widespread influence especially among the Colored people, and the hard-working deep-thinking Rev. J. L. Barksdale, the genial, but tireless Rev. W. F. Graham are bright lights whose rays are most potent in shaping the intellectual welfare and moral condition of the Colored people of this section." The Planet later describes him variously as "popular," "able and brilliant," and "beloved by all Richmond"—"one of Zion's greatest trumpeters," "a noted, refined and accomplished divine," "the orator of national reputation."

 Portrait of the Rev. W. F. Graham, then pastor of Fifth Street Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia, from the  Richmond Planet,  June 11, 1910. Photo: ChroniclingAmerica.gov/Library of Congress

Portrait of the Rev. W. F. Graham, then pastor of Fifth Street Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia, from the Richmond Planet, June 11, 1910. Photo: ChroniclingAmerica.gov/Library of Congress

In February 1902 the Planet reported on "Dr. Graham's Trip North": "Dr. W. F. Graham has been in Philadelphia the past week lecturing and preaching at the Holy Trinity Baptist Church, Dr. G. L. P. Taliaferro, pastor. Great crowds flocked to hear him each night. On Thursday night a great educational mass meeting was held at which time the Doctor spoke on 'Race Reflections.' Money was raised for Virginia Seminary." This trip, it seems, was a harbinger of things to come: At some point between 1910 and 1920, the Rev. Graham left his "fine brick residence at 108 E. Leigh Street" (right down the block from Maggie Walker's home on what was known as Quality Row) and took over the pastorship of Holy Trinity, a position he held until his death in 1932.

To find out when and why the Grahams moved north, I'll need to scroll through the Planet on microfilm (the paper has been digitized only through 1910). Was there a dispute of some sort? The reverend had resigned from Fifth Street Baptist in 1905 but was "called to the pastorate" of financially troubled Fifth Baptist the following year. Two years later, he resigned from that position and returned to Fifth Street Baptist. Or perhaps he and his family were in the vanguard of the Great Migration, an exodus of some six million African Americans from the South, beginning in 1915. In 1902, white supremacists had succeeded in rewriting the Virginia state constitution, which disenfranchised the vast majority of black Virginians and further eroded their hard-won political power. From then on, the grip of Jim Crow laws only gathered strength.

By the time the Grahams left Richmond, they had lived in Jackson Ward for twenty-odd years and seem to have been among the city's most prominent African American residents. The Rev. Graham was the president of an insurance company and sat on the board of directors of the Mechanics' Savings Bank, founded by none other than John Mitchell Jr., the editor of the Planet (and a member of Fifth Street Baptist; he was "received into the church" on May 25, 1902). Mrs. Graham was herself a leader in the church and in the Order of Calanthe, a benevolent society led by . . . John Mitchell Jr.

I'm not sure we would have gone to Mount Lawn had there been a photograph of the Grahams' headstone(s) on FindAGrave. But there wasn't even a listing, which made me wonder whether the graves had been lost (we have some experience with this, after all) or simply never recorded. I found no trace on the church websites or anywhere else. Mount Lawn, on first glance, seemed well tended if a bit worn—and much, much bigger than I had expected, with densely packed monuments and neither map nor caretaker in sight. As we wandered among the graves, scanning the headstones for their names, I all but gave up looking. It was cold and wet and there were too many stones, and I wasn't even sure there'd be anything to find. And yet all of a sudden, there it was—an elegant, rose-colored memorial to the Rev. Wesley F. Graham and Josephine A. Graham. I wanted to wrap my arms around it. —EHP

 An homage to Josephine A. (Shields) Graham in the  Richmond Planet,  January 6, 1906. ChroniclingAmerica.gov/Library of Congress

An homage to Josephine A. (Shields) Graham in the Richmond Planet, January 6, 1906. ChroniclingAmerica.gov/Library of Congress

An Expedition to East End by Erin Hollaway Palmer + Brian Palmer

Yesterday afternoon, as the snow began its slushward journey, Melissa—another of the regular East End volunteers—and I decided to venture to the cemetery on foot. It's not all that far (about two miles) on an ordinary day, but there's nothing ordinary about 18 inches of snow in Richmond, Virginia. We trudged down the middle of Chimborazo Boulevard, then up Oakwood Avenue, and continued past Oakwood Cemetery's large, lovingly tended Confederate section, eventually arriving (after helping dig out and push not one but two cars that had gotten stuck—it was only fair after an earlier misadventure of our own...) at the entrance of Evergreen Cemetery on E. Richmond Road.

We were not the first walkers in the woods—there were tracks winding up from the road—but whoever it was had come and gone. Almost no headstones were visible through the trees. What the overgrowth had not already obscured, the snow had blanketed. Only at the top of the hill, where Maggie Walker is buried beneath a tall stone cross (pictured above), could we begin to make out the hidden city. It was perfectly still except for the chirping of birds and the sound of our boots breaking through the crunchy top layer of snow.

East End was undisturbed, not counting the access road, which, to our surprise, had been plowed after a fashion. I walked back into the section where I had been working earlier in the week to check on "my" people—I'm particularly attached to this spot—and to assure them that we would be back soon. The melting has begun in earnest, and I'm hoping the snow, or enough of it, will be gone by week's end.

After leaving East End, we walked down Stony Run Parkway, the trash that's strewn along the road temporarily out of sight, and then struggled up "Mount Oakwood" (okay, it's a hill), finally emerging onto the street on the other side of the cemetery, as if returning from a cross-country expedition. All told, we were gone three hours. —EHP

 

File Under: Quo Vadis by Erin Hollaway Palmer + Brian Palmer

 Louise Maria Palmer Pierce (1882–1967).

Louise Maria Palmer Pierce (1882–1967).

On Thursday night Brian and I presented some of our work to All Together, a community group in Williamsburg, Virginia, that aims to bring people together across racial lines in a place where black-white relations sag under the weight of a centuries-long history of oppression, dispossession, and silence. At the end of the front row sat an African American woman we had not yet met but who in a few short days has opened up a world of information and possibilities. Her name is Quo Vadis Wright, and she was born in Williamsburg in 1935 to James Williams Sr. and Virgie Webb. When we first met, she rattled off a handful of Palmer family connections, which only seemed more amazing when we got back to Richmond that night and I opened up our Ancestry.com family tree, which I've been working on for years. Sure enough, Mrs. Wright's late husband, John Pettis Wright, was the grandson of Lizzie Palmer Bowman, one of Mat and Julia Palmer's 12 children. (Mat and Julia were Brian's great-grandparents, both born into slavery in Virginia.) We still do not know very much about Lizzie, who died in 1940, and we don't know whether any photos of her exist. But there in Mrs. Wright's abundant photo albums—we visited her the morning after our presentation, right before she turned over her collection to William and Mary's Swem Library—was a beautiful photograph of another Palmer sister, Louise Maria Palmer Pierce (known as Maria, with a long "i"), who was born in York County in 1882 and died in 1967. There was also a photo of Maria's husband, Fleming Pierce. in 1935, Mrs. Wright's uncle, Clarence Webb, had married Louise V. Pierce, one of Maria and Fleming's daughters. 

Now, we've been looking for Palmer family photographs—especially those of what historian Robert Engs called "Freedom's First Generation," the children of Mat and Julia Palmer—for going on four years. A very few photos of Lewis Palmer, Brian's grandfather, exist, and we have one good one of another sister, Essie (pictured with her niece and Mrs. Wright's mother-in-law, Elsie Wright). We have a few snapshots of two of the other siblings, John Frank and Sallie, later in life, since they both lived into the 1980s. That we have a photograph of Mat Palmer himself still seems nothing short of miraculous. 

But his wife, Julia, and the rest of their children remain sealed off to us in a largely unrecorded past. The few people we know who knew some of the children have only the haziest memories—they can't share the kinds of stories that would give us an inkling of who they were. Amazingly, however, Mrs. Wright remembers Maria, whom she used to visit "in the country" with Louise, her uncle's wife. Maria was always in a wheelchair—rumor was, she'd been bitten by a spider that had crept into her shoe in the outhouse. Maria was, Mrs. Wright says, a big woman. "All these women were big black women." Her husband, Fleming, had these "delicate feet" and "acted like he adored Maria," who apparently had pretty teeth.

These may seem like insignificant details, but they are precisely the kind that give texture to individual lives. And the photo itself, of course, makes real the way nothing else can the fact of Maria's existence. Even if we learn nothing else about her, she stands here, strong, dignified, faintly smiling, with the country—Palmer land—spreading out behind her. —EHP

Nov. 4, 1942: From the Department of Anniversaries You Won't Hear Much About by Erin Hollaway Palmer + Brian Palmer

 Enlisted men's Ship's Service, Camp Peary, 1943, U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

Enlisted men's Ship's Service, Camp Peary, 1943, U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

On this day in 1942, Virginia's Camp Peary—now a top-secret military and CIA facility—was officially established as a training center for the U.S. Navy's construction battalions, the Seabees. Unofficially, the Navy had started moving in months before, booting families off their land with as little as 48 hours notice—this after legally condemning the property. "Just compensation" was, for some, peanuts; for others . . . a peanut butter sandwich. My grandparents got a little over $1,700 for less than half a dozen acres, but they, along with several hundred other African Americans (they were about 80 percent of the area's population), lost their home, farm, church, and the measure of autonomy that all of these gave them in the segregated South.

Since then, Camp Peary has had a lot of tenants—German POWs, Boy Scouts, Tibetan insurgents, Soviet spies—and a few would-be ones. Right after the war, the state of Virginia tried to sell the base to the United Nations Organization, which was hunting for a headquarters for the new international body. Virginia couldn’t meet the UNO's “essential criteria” for a new home. Among these: “No general racial discrimination.”

 Richmond Times-Dispatch, January 6, 1946

Richmond Times-Dispatch, January 6, 1946

A member of the US delegation, which had schlepped all the way to London to pitch Camp Peary's 10,000 acres, just outside of Williamsburg, conveyed the search committee's message to the press: “We were told that so long as Virginia has a ‘Jim Crow’ law, it could not be considered.” The UNO added a kind of up-yours coda to the rejection: “If under any circumstances Virginia could assure the UNO committee that the impediment would be removed, then the (interim) committee would recommend the Williamsburg site be considered. The same holds true for any State below the Mason-Dixon Line.” Pretty progressive for 1946. That was on January 5, 1946, a day to celebrate. —BP

Back At It by Erin Hollaway Palmer + Brian Palmer

We spent a couple of hours at East End this morning. The interminable rain had kept us away for several weeks. Erin had been out more recently than I. I have been wrapped up in deadlines and nursing an aching back—I must learn a new technique for root-wrenching and stump-pulling.

The sun was brilliant today and we were alone, for the most part. A car leaving neighboring Evergreen Cemetery on the access road passed by slowly as we walked in the section of East End that straddles the Richmond–Henrico County border. The driver, a man or woman sunk deep into the seat—perhaps just a really short person—drove on without looking.

We visited today to photograph a headstone for a Richmond couple we met last week, at our exhibition. They share a family name with the deceased. They have people buried at Evergreen, but they knew nothing of this particular (possible) relation interred at East End. We offered to send them the photo. Erin promised to do some research, online and at the Library of Virginia.

I got stung by a yellow jacket through my pants as Erin unearthed a grave stone. She found others and temporary markers, too. A number of these were for children. We know that they died a long time ago—six-year-old Vanessa Christian passed away in 1964, a few months before I was born—but we always feel a wave of sadness when we find them. Erin may write more about this.

I have never been able to photograph the depressions that corrugate some sections of the cemetery, graves marked and unmarked, to my satisfaction. I tried again today. They remind me of the graves at Old Orchard Cemetery at Camp Peary, the first place I truly noticed these casket-shaped troughs. We will probably never learn who is buried there.

The shapes in the ground force me to visualize a coffin, which sends my thoughts toward funerals, real and imagined. As I child, frightened of anything having to do with death, I would have been pants-wetting terrified of these dips in the earth. Now, I tread lightly around them, respectfully, but also curiously. The souls at rest under my feet have stories.

Gone Missing: Dr. R. F. Tancil by Erin Hollaway Palmer + Brian Palmer

 Plot of Dr. Richard Fillmore Tancil and family, East End Cemetery, Henrico Co., Virginia, July 26, 2015. Dr. Tancil's headstone has since disappeared. Photo: Brian Palmer

Plot of Dr. Richard Fillmore Tancil and family, East End Cemetery, Henrico Co., Virginia, July 26, 2015. Dr. Tancil's headstone has since disappeared. Photo: Brian Palmer

We received some disturbing news about East End this afternoon. John, the coordinator of the cleanup effort, had gone to the cemetery to be interviewed by CBS 6 (Richmonders, the story will air tomorrow, July 30, at 6 p.m.). He first noticed that a large amount of trash had been unloaded into the Dumpster, which is meant for brush only. Worse, he discovered that Dr. R. F. Tancil's headstone appears to have been stolen. It was nowhere to be found.

The picture above is from Sunday evening, when Brian and I spent several hours at the cemetery; I was working to uncover a plot nearby and made numerous branch-hauling trips past Dr. Tancil's grave to the road just beyond.

Dr. Tancil (1859–1928) was among Richmond's most prominent African American citizens in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He graduated from Howard University with a degree in medicine and was the founder and president of the Nickel Savings Bank. His home in Church Hill was just a few blocks from where we'll be moving at the end of this week. 

I don't know what possesses people to desecrate graves, though I could certainly make a few guesses in this case. East End, a historic African American cemetery, has suffered from decades of neglect—it was completely overgrown until volunteers began clawing back the vines in the summer of 2013—at the edge of a city that has gone to great lengths to limit if not destroy the power of the black community. This is not a recent phenomenon. This stretches back to Reconstruction (to say nothing of slavery itself). By abandoning East End, Henrico County and the City of Richmond have made very clear in yet another way who matters and who doesn't. With historic disregard as a backdrop, why would someone think twice about removing a headstone—which until recently wasn't even visible—from a place invested with no value by the powers that be? 

We're hoping that the authorities, whom John has notified, will deal with this matter with the seriousness it deserves.

by Erin Hollaway Palmer + Brian Palmer

 Scoutmaster Alan Meekins gathered soiled American flags and planted fresh ones on veterans' graves for Memorial Day. Photo: BP

Scoutmaster Alan Meekins gathered soiled American flags and planted fresh ones on veterans' graves for Memorial Day. Photo: BP

It's been a busy Memorial Day weekend at East End, with volunteers working and visitors stopping by to pay their respects to relatives, tidy their plots, and occasionally share stories with us. Heading back out today—right now—hoping for more of the same.

Overlooked No Longer by Erin Hollaway Palmer + Brian Palmer

 Headstone of William I. Johnson Sr., Hannah L. Johnson, and William I. Johnson III, East End Cemetery, Henrico County, Virginia. Photo: BP

Headstone of William I. Johnson Sr., Hannah L. Johnson, and William I. Johnson III, East End Cemetery, Henrico County, Virginia. Photo: BP

We had passed the Johnson headstone dozens of times in the months we’ve been volunteering at East End Cemetery. We had dragged tree limbs and hauled brush across the family plot to the Dumpster, skirted the stacks of old tires that other workers had parked there until they could be carted away. But we hadn’t noticed it. 

The large granite memorial honoring William I. Johnson Sr., his wife, Hannah, and one of their grandsons simply didn’t need us. It wasn’t enmeshed in English ivy or choked by brambles, like the thousands of other headstones still waiting to be revealed. 

But our best explanation for not seeing Mr. Johnson, born enslaved in 1840, is that we hadn’t been looking for him at East End. He was part of another story—in fact, an increasingly vital character in Make the Ground Talk. We knew he had lived in Richmond, thrived here, but we hadn’t gotten around to figuring out where he’d been laid to rest. Until Wednesday night. That’s when the two main tracks of our Virginia life, creating Make the Ground Talk and working at East End Cemetery, crossed. 

Our volunteer work at East End is, in a sense, accidental. We started to film there for Make the Ground Talk. We had heard that people were cleaning up a historic black cemetery, which we thought would make excellent footage—footage we can’t get at Old Orchard, the burial ground at the center of our documentary, because we can’t visit regularly. It is a top-secret military base, after all. We have, in fact, been prohibited from filming there since the summer of 2012.

We returned to East End ready to work because we saw the power of what volunteers there were doing—clawing back fragments of our history one headstone at a time. There's a lot to be said for documenting and image-making, but what’s going on at East End is vital, hands-on work. Church members, Scouts (Girl and Boy), students and little squirts, young professionals, retirees, even active-duty soldiers routinely reclaim evidence of black lives from the dirt nearly every Saturday morning. They've cleared almost two acres of cemetery, out of roughly 16, in about two years. 

On May 28, 1937, Milton L. Randolph, an African American interviewer with the Works Progress Administration, sat down with William I. Johnson Sr., then 97 years old, asked him a series questions about his life, and recorded Johnson’s answers, in his words, with pencil on paper. His is one of more than 100 extant "ex-slave narratives" gathered under the Virginia Writer's Project in the late 1930s, a priceless collection of interviews with formerly enslaved people. There are barely seven pages of Mr. Johnson's story, later typed and archived at the Library of Virginia, but there is valuable detail that we will most likely never find for Mat and Julia, my great-grandparents. 

Mr. Johnson matters to us because he and Mat Palmer, born circa 1850, were contemporaries with similar roots. Fragments of Mat Palmer’s story mirror aspects of Mr. Johnson’s. Both men had been enslaved in Goochland County. Both men served in the United States Colored Troops. And both lived in Richmond. The white family that owned Mr. Johnson appears on an 1864 map not far from A. M. Hobson, the Confederate officer who owned Mat. Mr. Johnson and Mat Palmer weren’t next-plantation neighbors, but they lived within a few miles of each other—which we find nothing short of astounding.

Mr. Johnson served as a butler for the family that owned him, a relatively privileged position for a person held in bondage. His pre-Emancipation status—along with knowledge he acquired in the household, and later as a member of the Union army’s quartermaster corps—undoubtedly set up him up for his success as a free man. “Mr. Johnson enjoyed the reputation of being one of the leading contractors in Richmond during the days of his active work, 1907 to 1932,” his interviewer recorded. “I can read a little,” Johnson told Randolph with great humility, “but when it comes to figures, I don’t ask nobody any questions.”

 William I. Johnson appears in the 1910 census with his wife, Hannah, and three of their five children. According to Richmond city directories, the family lived at 516 N. Harrison Street, just south of Broad, for many years. 

William I. Johnson appears in the 1910 census with his wife, Hannah, and three of their five children. According to Richmond city directories, the family lived at 516 N. Harrison Street, just south of Broad, for many years. 

Mat couldn’t read—he signed documents with an X—and appears on censuses as “day laborer,” and later “farmer.” In the army, he’s listed as a private with a regular infantry company. His apparent lack of special skills or education, and his later life as a farmer lead us to believe he worked in the fields. 

Mr. Johnson was a member of First Baptist Church, the city’s foremost “colored” house of worship at the time, and of countless fraternal and civic groups—the Odd Fellows, Masons, Good Samaritans, Order of St. Luke’s. We know that Mat Palmer was a deacon of Mt. Pilgrim Baptist Church in Williamsburg, but we don't know anything about his affiliations. Chances are good, though, that he belonged to the Odd Fellows, which had a lodge in Magruder, where Mat and Julia lived.

“I have raised all of my children, educated them—then college, those who wanted it,” Johnson told Randolph. Mat couldn’t say the same—the Palmers didn’t have college money—but he and Julia were able to leave their children land on which to live and to farm, a tremendous legacy for a black family in Jim Crow America. 

The two men are not doppelgängers, but the parallels in their stories are powerful. William I. Johnson’s narrative allows us to illuminate, slowly, parts of a shared past that had been obscured. With Mr. Johnson's help (plus other sources he names), we can now begin to visualize and recreate what certain, critical phases of life—enslaved life in Goochland, escaping slavery to enlist in the Union army, scraping together a livelihood as a freeman—might have been like for Mat. This may be the closest we ever get to knowing my great-grandfather's story. —BP

Soul Searching in Beautiful Belize by Erin Hollaway Palmer + Brian Palmer

Erin and I traveled to Belize last summer and fell in love with Punta Gorda, in the so-called Deep South. Our guesthouse was just steps from a historic cemetery where prominent Belizeans are buried. We saw very quickly that the forces of nature that chew up and destroy un- or underattended burial sites here in Virginia chew even harder, faster, and deeper in hotter and wetter places. This creates eerie surprises. We investigate one in this video.

This wasn't our first video outing with a GoPro, but it's the first short we've put together with GP footage. We're now using the camera for Make the Ground Talk videography in Va. —BP

P.S. A GoPro may be able to go anywhere, but it has neither an LCD nor a viewfinder. You can use your iPhone as a screen by way of the GoPro app, but we were afraid we'd drop ours in the murky Caribbean (no crystalline waters on this stretch of coast)—so we were shooting blind. —EHP

In Death There Is Life by Erin Hollaway Palmer + Brian Palmer

Yesterday we journeyed all of three miles from home on a long-postponed errand: a visit to the Division of Vital Records. It's hard to say why we'd put it off for so long — the nine separate forms we had to fill out by hand might have had something to do with it, or maybe it was because we didn't really expect to find what we were looking for.

I had read ages ago that there was a gap in the records (to wit, birth and death records are available for 1853–1896 and June 1912 to the present); plus, as anyone researching African American ancestors knows, little official documentation exists of black people before 1865 — and by "official" I mean, for example, government-issued birth and death certificates, not the jottings of a slave owner in his account book. Somehow it had not occurred to me that Brian's great-grandfather, Mat Palmer, who died in 1927, might very well have a death certificate on file (though no birth record, since he was born well before the Civil War — and was enslaved). 

And here it is! We waited until we got to the parking lot to do a little jig of joy, though the woman behind the counter (who warmed up slowly under the influence of our irresistible charm) could see how excited we were. What's most interesting to us about this document is box 7 — Mat's age at death, almost ten years younger than the 86 that's etched on his headstone — and box 19, his date of burial, which happens to be my birthday. 

Web_with_bug_Matt_Palmer_death_certificate_001.jpg

You'd think we'd be troubled by the age discrepancy, but it actually helps clarify something that has been bothering me since we began digging three years ago. If Mat had indeed passed away in 1927 at age 86, he would have been born around 1840. Fine, but according to marriage records, Mat married Julia Fox when he was 23 — in 1873. If, however, he was born around 1850 instead, this little mystery would be solved.

We've come to accept that dates and ages can fluctuate, sometimes wildly, over the decades — and yet . . . this particular discrepancy nagged me. Even if Mat didn't know his exact birthdate, it's unlikely that he would have been off by a full decade, especially as a young man. Later in life, it makes more sense. On his Union pension application, which he submitted for at least the third time in 1912, he lists his age as 70, which puts his birthdate at 1842 — so back to where we started. Our new theory, though, is that Mat inflated his age to improve his chances of getting money from the government. The tactic doesn't appear to have worked — the claim was stamped "abandoned." —EHP

Volunteers, Metal Detector Guy, and Mr. Coleman & His Dancing Ditch Witch by Erin Hollaway Palmer + Brian Palmer

Erin and I don’t get out much these days. We both teach at the University of Richmond, in the journalism department, during the week. This is Erin’s first semester teaching at the college level, so she's buried in quizzes and assignments. We have pizza night on Friday. (A Malbec for Erin, a root beer—or two—for me.) And on Saturday, we go to East End and dig in the dirt. As we did today. And it’s marvelous.

Mr. C. B. Coleman stopped his pickup not far from me today. This was a convenient excuse for me to take a break from vine wrangling. I admire what you do, he said of the volunteers, and offered his help. He’s been digging graves for 35 years at Evergreen, the adjoining cemetery, he said. Coleman figured he could use his backhoe to clear some of the ground cover for us. "Save you time." I heard "backhoe” and thought—and then asked—is it possible to scrape the ground without disturbing and possibly smashing buried headstones? The volunteers now gathered around him were wondering this, too. Coleman answered us 30 minutes or so later with his Ditch Witch.

I found him by mistake. I had gone searching for a gent who had rolled up in white Land Rover — who, my fellow volunteers told me, was metal-detecting for Civil War relics. As far as I know, that's not legal. Tromping around a cemetery hunting for goodies to take home with you or sell is also kind of disgusting. But I stopped to watch Coleman, and I stayed.

He had already deftly cleared a wide path into an untouched swath of the burial ground. He used the bucket of the Witch more to tug and sweep than to scrape and dig. He’d purposely entangle the bucket in ivy and undergrowth, and then drag it away, like he was peeling back nasty old wall-to-wall carpeting. I had to see it to understand it. I wandered into his path, with my camera. He swung the bucket without a glance, avoiding me and the titling headstones jutting out of the ground.

After a little while, he chugged off to park the Witch at Evergreen. This, I gathered, was a demonstration. He’d done the equivalent of a day's work by a dozen volunteers in barely an hour. (My estimate. John Shuck and team can correct me.)

"Sometime when I’m around here digging graves,” Coleman said as he got ready to drive home, “I’ll just go ahead and erase some stuff.” —BP

Among the Living … At the Cemetery by Erin Hollaway Palmer + Brian Palmer

 Uncleared burial plots at East End Cemetery, Henrico County, Virginia, January 2015, brianpalmer.photos 2015

Uncleared burial plots at East End Cemetery, Henrico County, Virginia, January 2015, brianpalmer.photos 2015

A dark gray Ford SUV slow-rolled up Evergreen Road, softly crunching gravel. Odd, and little scary. Not many folks travel Evergreen. It’s a dirt road that leads to nothing but cemeteries.

Hunters scouting the area for a little late afternoon poaching, I figured, or cops.

I dropped the vine I was tugging on, and looked toward the front passenger-side window, which was sliding down. I got up and walked toward the truck. Cautiously, I peeked into the window. A man, big and brown, wearing green, leaned toward me. “Mr. Palmer?” he asked.

Captain Milt Robinson told me on the phone that he might drop by on a cemetery cleanup day, and he did. Robinson oversees Henrico County and Richmond for Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

I gathered at his truck with a couple of other volunteers. Robinson told us he wanted to see the area for himself. “We don’t want to go behind Henrico Police and investigate their investigation,” he said. There's interagency cooperation and professional etiquette to worry about. And then, of course, there's general principle: Cops stick together. I get it. My grandfather was a cop, proud of it. He did 20 years in the NYPD, 1936 to 1956, much of it walking a beat in Harlem.

Robinson said he’d consider increasing patrols out here for the next hunting season. Then he excused himself to explore. We all went back to digging, sawing, and pulling.

As the sun started to set, I schlepped our gardening—degardening, in this case—tools back to coordinator John Shuck’s pickup. I put my cameras in our car, and then I walked to Robinson’s truck. He had parked between us—we were working near the main road—and the gate to Evergreen Cemetery. I assumed he’d be nestled in his seat, typing notes into the laptop mounted in the cab. But he wasn’t, so I walked into the woods, or what looked like woods until I took three steps off the road. Every few feet, there were headstones. This was precisely the area where we'd seen the hunters just weeks before.

I couldn't track him down, so we left. I called him later that evening. Robinson told me he'd been looking around, as promised. He said he’d stopped at Maggie Walker’s grave before leaving.