Evergreen Cemetery – The Significance of a Final Resting Place

During slavery, there was little if any dignity for African-Americans – even in death. It was against the law for African-Americans to assemble or meet as a group, so slaves were often buried without ceremony, on non-crop producing land, in graves that were often unmarked. With the end of slavery, African-Americans in the South were free to assemble, live as families, celebrate life and mourn death though segregation now stretched from birth past death; from the place you were born to where you could live, to your final resting place. For approximately 5,000 African-Americans, that final resting place was Evergreen Cemetery.

As early as 1891, just a 26 years after the end of the Civil War, when African Africans in Richmond, the former seat of the Confederacy, buried their loved ones and commemorated their lives with headstones, they did so in Evergreen Cemetery. Really four cemeteries on 59 acres— Evergreen, East End Cemetery, Oakwood Colored Section and the Colored Pauper’s cemetery— were private cemeteries maintained by the Evergreen Cemetery Association. These burial places served as the final resting place for many of Richmond’s prominent African American citizens. It is in Evergreen, designed to be the African American’s community’s equivalent of Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery which was only for whites, that Maggie L. Walker and John Mitchell, Jr., who I mentioned in last week’s post about Jackson Ward, are buried.

Evergreen Cemetery in Provenance

I learned about Evergreen Cemetery in my research for my novel, Provenance, when a prominent character’s death became a pivotal scene in the book. On his deathbed, my character, Hank Whitaker, reveals to his unsuspecting family that he is really a black man who has been passing for white. His mother-in-law, Charlotte, tries to quickly mitigate the effect that Hank’s news will have on her daughter and grandson. The following excerpts from Provenance is an example of one of the ways used Evergreen to convey how society used race and class to determine the worth of a human being.

If they were going to salvage anything, she would have to move fast. By tomorrow, Hank’s deathbed confession would be rumor. Within three days, the efficiency of gossip in Richmond society would ensure that Hank Whitaker’s passing was all people talked about. Charlotte was not about to wait for talk to turn to action – there were severe consequences for colored folks who tried to pass for white. She’d seen trees bearing the bodies of black men for doing a lot less than Hank had. “They will not take their vengeance out on Maggie and Lance, no matter what Hank did,” Charlotte vowed.

       §›

She looked at the piece of paper crumpled in her hand. She’d gotten the number of an undertaker from a colored nurse in the hospital’s segregated ward.

“Go to the hospital and get him tonight,” she instructed the undertaker after giving him the pertinent details.

“Bury him in Evergreen,” she said referring to the Negro cemetery in Richmond’s East End. She didn’t tell him Hank Whitaker was her daughter’s husband, she told them she was paying for the burial because his family couldn’t afford it. “We’re not having a service. I’ll come around tomorrow to pay whatever it costs.” With that, she had taken care of the inconvenient remains of Hank Whitaker.

§›

She alone had presided over Hank’s burial. With the scent of freshly dug earth in the air, the two gravediggers lowered the plain pine coffin into the new grave.

“Are you sure you won’t be wantin’ a marker for the grave?” the undertaker asked her a second time. “Evergreen’s sixty acres, Mrs. Bennett. If you ever want to find this grave again—” Charlotte shook her head, no, before the man could finish.

“Then will you be sayin’ a few words before they close the grave?” he asked, hoping this woman was not as cold and heartless as she appeared. Again, Charlotte declined.

“Just cover him up,” she said. “Cover him up good.”

Evergreen Cemetery Today

800px-Evergreen_cemetery_rvaEvergreen was founded and maintained by the families of the people who were buried there. Unlike the white cemeteries in Richmond, Evergreen received no public funds or support. As African-American families left the South and integration diminished the need for segregated facilities and services, sacred places like Evergreen soon fell into disrepair. Today Evergreen Cemetery is abandoned, overgrown and vandalized. Abandoned Virginia #22 – Evergreen Cemetery Richmond by Brian Sterowski, filmed in July of 2015, shows Evergreen as it is today.

A recent photo essay in The Nation, Reclaiming Black History, One Grave at a Time by Brian Palmer and Erin Hollaway Palmer, is a powerful statement on the years of official neglect that, along with the English ivy and other invasive plants, have swallowed the East End Cemetery of Evergreen Cemeteries. The history of prominent early 20th century African-Americans and World War II veterans buried there is now further obscured by the indignity of also having their graves buried. A BBC film by Colm O’ Molloy is about photographer, Brian Palmer, who is working to document the graves in East End Cemetery as a way to raise the awareness of this loss of history and heritage.

However bleak the current state of Evergreen Cemetery, there may still be a future to the past this historic site represents. Several historic and civic associations, as well as local college students and community volunteers, are working to save the history that Evergreen represents for all Americans. A video of Evergreen Cemetery Historic Marker Dedication by the National Park Service features magnificent images of Evergreen’s history and a glimpse of what its future could hold.

Here I Lay My Burdens Down: A History of the Black Cemeteries of Richmond, Virginia by Veronica Davis is the resource for more information about Evergreen Cemetery.

Eugene Jacques Bullard – Discovering the Black Swallow

Eugene Jacques Bullard
Eugene Jacques Bullard

In my research about Paris between the Wars, I kept seeing a name I had never heard of before. Why had I never heard of this Black American so prominent in French history? As I read about him, and as you’ll read here, his story is so compelling that I had to include him in my book. I discovered remarkable people and events in history through research for Provenance, however, none were more remarkable than Eugene Jacques Bullard, America’s first black military aviator. Because of the color of his skin, he was never allowed to fly for his own country; so he flew for France and became one their most renowned and decorated military heroes.

He was born Eugene James Bullard, on October 9, 1895 in Columbus, Georgia. Bullard’s father, William, instilled in his children that they had to maintain their dignity and self-respect in the face of the white majority’s determination “to keep blacks in their place.” William’s convictions nearly cost him his life and after witnessing his father’s near lynching, Eugene at age 11, with just five years of schooling, ran away from home fearing that he had seen a preview of his future in Columbus. He earned his way by tending and learning to race horses. An English family that hired him told him that racial discrimination did not exist in England. By the age of 17 in 1912, Bullard stowed away on a German ship leaving Norfolk, VA for Aberdeen, Scotland, seeking opportunity he could not find in the United States.

Bullard performed in vaudeville and earned money as a prize-fighter eventually settling in Paris. He joined the French army at the start of World War I, was wounded twice and awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery at the 1916 Battle of Verdun along side the Harlem Hellfighters, a battalion of African-American soldiers who were also left out of the history books. Bullard’s wounds made him unfit for infantry so he trained as a pilot in the Lafayette Flying Corps in the French Air Force. He flew 20 combat missions and was credited with downing two German aircraft in the world’s fight for democracy. When the U.S. entered the War in 1917, they recruited American pilots from the Lafayette Flying Corps and though Bullard passed the physical and was renowned for his aeronautical skill, he was not accepted – only Caucasians were allowed to fly.

Eugene Bullard Athletic club adAfter World War I, Bullard settled in Paris where he was an entrepreneur. He owned the popular Paris nightclubs, Le Grand Duc and L’Escadrille, an athletic club and other successful business ventures. His circle of friends included  Josephine BakerLouis ArmstrongLangston Hughes and French flying ace Charles Nungesser. With the outbreak of World War II, Bullard, who spoke English, French and German, joined the French resistance, was wounded and barely escaped when the Germans occupied Paris.

Eugene Bullard returned to the United States to heal, planning to go back to Paris after the War. However his businesses were destroyed and the life he knew in Paris had moved on without him. With the money the French government paid him for the loss of his property during the war, he remained in New York City, working as an elevator operator in Rockefeller Center and living in virtual obscurity.

However, the French people never forgot the war hero they nicknamed the “Black Swallow of Death.” For his distinguished service to France during World War I and II, his adopted country awarded Bullard their highest military honors: Médaille Militaire, Croix de Guerre, Volunteer’s Cross (Croix du combattant volontaire), Wounded Insignia, World War I Commemorative Medal, World War I Victory Medal, Freedom Medal, and the World War II Commemorative Medal. In 1954, the French government asked him to help relight the Eternal Flame of the Tomb of the Unknown French Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. In 1959, he was named Knight of the Légion d’honneur. In 1960, when France’s President, General Charles de Gualle, visited the United States, it was Eugene Bullard he asked to visit with. Having no idea who he was, the State Department had to scramble to find him before de Gualle’s visit. Eugene Bullard died of stomach cancer on October 12, 1961 at the age of 66. He was buried with military honors in the French War Veterans’ section of Flushing Cemetery in Queens, New York.

In 1992, the McDonnell Douglas Corporation donated a bronze bust of Bullard by sculptor Eddie Dixon to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum where it is displayed in the Legend, Memory and the Great War in the Air gallery. On September 14, 1994, the United States finally recognized the hero that could not fly for his own country by posthumously commissioning him the rank of Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force.

Eugene Bullard as a Character in Provenance

I included Eugene Bullard as a character in Provenance because he embodied what the fictional characters in the book were searching for—the opportunity to live undefined by their race. My characters visit his popular night club Le Grand Duc, where celebrities and dignitaries in Paris vie for the attention of this dark-skinned American. Bullard illustrates the courage and commitment people of color had to have to achieve their potential. Bullard makes another appearance in Provenance during his later years in New York, again demonstrating that life extracts a cost for everything.  In his courage, passion, conviction and pathos, Eugene Bullard is in every way a remarkable American that deserves more than his county gave him.

On the Historical Characters Resource page of this blog are the titles I used for my research on Eugene Bullard.

Note: This is the second in a series of blog posts I’m doing about some of the history I uncovered while researching Provenance. For posts in the series click on the From Provenance Research under Categories.

Black History: Drama of the American Story

Sharing the rich and dramatic history that I discovered while researching my novel, Provenance.

by Joanna Kosinsky
by Joanna Kosinsky

One of the joys of writing fiction is that you can create a world where the real and the imagined help you tell your story. For my novel, Provenance, I created a cast of fictional characters who came alive in the pages of my book and, to enhance their story, I cast real people in history to play roles in my characters’ lives. Provenance’s characters live in Richmond, Paris and New York. They travel to Florence, London and the Caribbean. Their lives are impacted by historic events like World War II, adding depth and context to the world I created for them.

This approach to writing fiction required me to do a significant amount of historical  research about the early 20th century, the period in which Provenance is set, and the effect America’s most prominent social forces—race, class and gender—had on my real and imagined characters. I uncovered facts that were a revelation, things I knew of  but really knew little about.  I was introduced to personalities and places that were excluded, ignored or lost in the American history I was taught in school. Through my research I found some of that missing history, primarily African-American history, and specifically the rich history of self-determination. At a time when people of color had few opportunities to succeed, many found astounding ways to excel.

Black History is American History, though in 1976, February was designated Black or African-American History Month. On its website, The Library of Congress describes the celebration of African-American History Month “as a time to recognize the importance of Black history in the drama of the American story.” African-American history is more than the drama of slavery and the civil rights era so, this is a great time to fill in some of our story’s missing information—all of it integral to America’s colorful provenance.

Every Tuesday and Thursday throughout the month of February, on this blog, I’ll share some of the treasures that I uncovered while researching Provenance.

I hope you’ll return here to read about people like Eugene Jacques Bullard, Maggie Lena Walker and Belle da Costa Greene who are not well-known but certainly renowned. I’ll tell you about places like Jackson Ward, Evergreen Cemetery and Harlem in Montmartre and, events like the more than 200,000 African-Americans who migrated to Europe before World War I.

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I hope you’ll read, comment and share throughout the month!