In the 1970s, John Mitchell grew up hearing how Confederate sympathizers would tie chains around his grandfather’s obelisk in Evergreen Cemetery and pull it down. He learned about people from black- and white-owned businesses who would frequent the grounds after them and clean as much as they could.
His ancestors buried in Evergreen - a long-neglected African American cemetery in the city's East End that’s fallen victim to overgrown trees, vines and vegetation - include John Mitchell Jr., an editor of the Richmond Planet who pushed for racial equality in the late 1800s. In all-caps dark-gray letters, his headstone states he was "a man who would walk into the jaws of death to serve his race." His grave was unmarked until 2012.
Mitchell hopes the 180-page master plan for restoring Evergreen unveiled Saturday morning at the Maggie L. Walker Historic Site in Jackson Ward will be a vehicle for preserving these stories and the final resting place of more than 10,000 people. The master plan, compiled by a 25-person team including Mitchell, covers efforts to restore monuments, find unmarked graves, establish pathways and access for people with disabilities and teach about its history. It’s the first restoration plan made for the cemetery.
The expected price tag is nearly $19 million, a sum the group hopes to raise through donations, state support and organizations like Virginia Outdoors Foundation.
"We've always talked about Evergreen. But it was always, 'It's too much to get it done. We can't do it by ourselves,'" Mitchell said. "To see it come to fruition ... it means a whole lot."
The team was built within The EnRichmond Foundation, a nonprofit focused on the conservation of public spaces, and is made up primarily of families of descendants. Executive director John Sydnor said there’s no time frame for the plan and added that progress will be defined by the completion of stages, such as restoring the Maggie Walker hilltop.
“That’s the next big step,” Sydnor said of the fundraising effort. “We’re just going phase by phase … we hope it’ll be this year, because I don’t want to make these folks wait.”
He refers to other descendants of families buried in Evergreen, such as Johnny Mickens, the great-grandson of Maggie Walker. He remembers picnicking around her gravestone at just two years old, when the cemetery was grassy fields and it was customary for children to run around.
Mickens, 73, was also part of the two-year effort that culminated in the 180-page initiative.
“We have a lot of plans. I hope I’m around to follow them through,” he said. “But I kind of know [my daughter] will take over when I go. I think it’s going to be fabulous.”
Saturday also marked the centennial for Zeta Phi Beta, a sorority of which Maggie Walker was an honorary member. They’ve worked with the National Park Service to conserve historic landmarks and had their own section of the crowd throughout the unveiling Saturday morning.
The president of the Richmond chapter, Violet Mensah, had on her 30-year-old black beret with blue “Zeta Phi Beta” letters stitched onto the front. Being at the Maggie Walker site reminded her of growing up in Church Hill and when she used to teach at Maggie Walker before it was the governor’s school. Sometimes, she still walks past Leigh Street to catch a glimpse of her old classroom.
“All of this has that remembrance. That connection,” she said. “We have family members who are buried in Evergreen. All of this just cultivates one historic and sentimental moment.”
Mitchell said they’re looking for partners to help in the restoration efforts, such as contractors and landscapers, with an emphasis on using as many Richmond businesses as possible.
“Particularly black Richmond businesses,” he said. “We want to make sure that there are black faces out there … that there are descendants of Richmond’s people out there.”
It’s our cemetery, he said. Now it’s time to get to work.