The Significance of Black Bodies—Buried

©Brian Palmer/brianpalmer.photos

  In my novel, Provenance, secrets are buried, and revealed, in Richmond, Virginia’s Evergreen Cemetery. The same can be said for the cemetery itself. When slavery ended and African-Americans in the South could claim a final resting place, approximately 5,000 African-Americans chose Evergreen Cemetery. Now the two historic African-American cemeteries in Richmond, through neglect and civic indifference, lie under decades of overgrowth and underbrush. The same freedoms that made black cemeteries possible also became reasons they turned into woodland—families moved away, some migrated North establishing a home place away from the segregated south. In time, some folks forgot or just never knew the significance and the secrets buried along with black bodies during the early 20th century. However, through the efforts of some people in the 21st century, secrets long kept and compacts long hidden are being revealed.

One of the diligent excavators of the secrets within Evergreen and East End Cemeteries is Brian Palmer, a photographer, writer and adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. I discovered Palmer’s work while doing research for Provenance. Through his photographs, Palmer tells the story of people and situations that he knows might otherwise remain untold—Evergreen and East End Cemeteries are such stories. In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Palmer uses his pen to illustrate and illuminate complicit compacts in states like Virginia, Alabama, and Mississippi. These states award thousands of taxpayer dollars annually to preserve the burial sites and erect monuments for traitors and oppressors while ignoring American citizens who were oppressed. Read Palmer’s eloquent opinion piece, For the Forgotten African-American Dead, where he calls on the Virginia General Assembly to pass House Bill 1547 and provide some taxpayer support to preserve historical graves and cemeteries of African-Americans. 

In The Significance of a Final Resting Place, I wrote about Palmer’s work, the prominent African-Americans buried in Evergreen Cemetery and, how the historic site became a pivotal scene in my novel. You can see more of Palmer’s work at http://www.brianpalmer.photos/

If you live in Virginia, contact your state legislative representative and insist that they vote for House Bill 1547. If you live in other states turning a blind eye and providing paltry or non-existent funding for African-American historic sites – speak up on behalf of history for all of us.

Jackson Ward – The Safe Haven of a Segregated Homeplace

By Morgan Riley
Houses in Jackson Ward By Morgan Riley

Geography plays a large part in Provenance as my characters search for a place to call home spans   continents. However, the search begins in the Deep South, Richmond Virginia in the early 1900’s, only a few decades after the Civil War. Though African-Americans were freed from slavery, it would be decades before the law ensured their right to live free. So, African-Americans carved out safe havens for themselves; segregated communities were there they lived, loved, played, prayed and thrived, becoming the Homeplace for generations of black families. In Richmond, that place was Jackson Ward, a community on the edge of downtown.

Jackson Ward, nicknamed the “Harlem of the South,” was the largest African American community in Richmond and the center for their commercial and entertainment activity. Because of segregation and in spite of it, communities like Jackson Ward thrived as a self-sustaining economy pulsing with black commerce including banks, retail stores, restaurants, real estate offices, barbers, hair salons and even a nationally renowned theater, the Hippodrome. African-Americans designed, built and lived in row and town homes that are now architecturally important for their cast iron porches and columns. They worshiped in churches that dated back to 1857 and, schools and a library educated the community’s black residents. An armory built in 1895 in Jackson Ward is the oldest in the country built for African American troops.

Jackson Ward, considered the “Wall Street of the South,” had a thriving banking and insurance industry. Residents like John Mitchell, Jr., an early civil rights activist and editor of the Richmond Planet newspaper, founded the Mechanics Savings Bank. Maggie L. Walker, the first woman of any race to charter an American bank, Consolidated Bank & Trust, served as its president. She also founded the St. Luke’s Penny Savings Bank, which helped more than 600 African-Americans become homeowners.

Jackson Ward MarkerIn Provenance, Jackson Ward is home to Mrs. Delora ‘Del’ Holder, a character that resonates with so many readers. She is the moral center of the book, a well of wisdom and humanity that sustains a family in their most difficult time. Del’s home and family in Jackson Ward are what sustained her. While Del is a fictional character, real places like Jackson Ward sustained people of color. In the relative safety of these segregated communities, though many were the target of racial violence, they nevertheless offered communal nurturing and concern that was not available elsewhere. They gave African-Americans an environment in which to exceed the potential others believed they did not have.

Like many black communities, Jackson Ward was diminished, however not completely destroyed when, in the 1950’s, it was divided during the construction of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway system. It was designated a National Historic Landmark district in 1978 and is currently enjoying a resurgence. Maggie L. Walker’s home is a National Historic Site run by the Park Service and there are historic walking tours through Jackson Square.