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