There’s a place, barely beyond Richmond’s boundaries, where the sun stopped shining long ago.
It’s just off a twisting narrow road pockmarked with potholes and tarnished by the telltale trash of the nearby poor. Few people drive this road, and fewer still turn from it onto an unmarked gravel pathway that brings you here, to East End Cemetery.
Here, countless coffins sink deeper each day into the soft soil, causing the ground to undulate like ripples on calm water – but this landscape is anything but calm. Thick and thorny brambles push past a blanket of poison ivy to snag at shirtsleeves and scratch at skin. Kudzu-cloaked obelisks rise like green-gloved fingers, pointing in futile defiance against nature’s unchecked onslaught. Grapevine grips at weedy trees which grow as much as 15 feet each year, coiling like pythons around their tapering trunks toward a neon canopy so dense that it casts the tombstones below into permanent shadow.
No one knows the dark landscape of this abandoned cemetery better than John Shuck.
Every weekend, his pickup clatters up that pathway with a bed full of the tools he uses to bring light to this cemetery and its rich history. East End and adjacent Evergreen Cemetery were built in the late 19th century by Richmond’s African-American community in part to rival Hollywood Cemetery, where the city’s most prominent and prosperous were laid to rest alongside such Confederate heroes as Jefferson Davis and J.E.B. Stuart.
At more than 70 combined acres atop a bluff carved by twin streams, East End and Evergreen offered every bit as much beauty and tranquility as Hollywood, and similarly became points of pride for Richmond’s most marginalized and mistreated community.
But unlike Hollywood, the new cemeteries were established without any provision for perpetual care. As many of Richmond’s African-Americans moved to the Northeast and Midwest during the Great Migration in the first half of the 20th century, the graves of those they left behind fell into disrepair with remarkable swiftness.
By 1970, the graveyards had become not just overgrown, but a haven for utter depravity. Statues were routinely vandalized and often beheaded during parties. When caretakers tried to keep revelers’ cars out by digging a six-foot-wide ditch at the entrance, they found that gap bridged soon after by a span of broken tombstones. A mausoleum mere feet from the family plot of Evergreen’s most famous occupant – bank president Maggie Walker – was broken into several years in a row, with a body once pulled from within onto the adjacent hillside. Today, its gaping hole remains unpatched.
Shuck sensed an unsettling history upon turning onto that pathway for the first time a little more than six years ago. He had often sought out old graveyards to satisfy intertwining interests in photography and genealogy, but nothing had prepared him for what he encountered.
“I’d never seen a cemetery like that before,” he says, closing his eyes and pausing to find an appropriate descriptor. “It was foreboding.”
But amid the darkness, an enlightened idea had taken firm root. As soon as he returned home, he searched online for ways to restore the cemeteries, and found that the only such efforts were made by a dwindling and increasingly discouraged group of bank employees. Within a few weeks of contacting them, Shuck found himself in sole command of clean-up activities at East End and Evergreen.
It’s difficult to imagine a more unlikely man for the job. He’s not a native Richmonder, having grown up making hay, milking cows and sowing corn on his family’s farm in central Iowa. He only moved to the city in 2001, drawn to its quieter pace of life after years in Atlanta as a software programmer for a bank.
Before a career in programming, he applied his aptitude for languages and technology as a Teletype operator for the Army, working for three years in the basement of the Nixon White House. Retired now at 66, he spends most of his time with his wife in their suburban home, with much of their time devoted to quiet pursuits like gardening and quilting.
And yet to watch him wielding a whining chainsaw, wading through knee-high weeds and chatting up volunteers on a beautiful Saturday morning is to see a man in his element.
“That’s very nice work right there,” he tells a teen pulling ivy from a family plot, in a soft voice that’s retained a flat and distinctly Midwestern cadence. “Have you found any tombstones yet? No? Keep at it; I bet you’ll have some beginner’s luck.”
It’s a line he repeats often to the school groups and college students who comprise the bulk of his volunteer corps. Though typically too few and ill-equipped to make any large-scale immediate change, they’re still a luxury he didn’t have when he began his undertaking.
It was during those first several times, alone in the dense woods, that he saw how fiercely resistant nature is to the changes he tried to implement. Ivy wrenched from the earth would grow back seemingly thicker than ever within weeks, especially during the summer months when the canopy traps the humidity and transforms the jungle below into an unforgiving hothouse.
But Shuck proved unbreakable, continuing to organize volunteer groups and working throughout the year to slowly clear the cemeteries’ original pathways, using an old aerial photo for guidance. It wasn’t unusual to encounter new and decidedly unnatural impediments to progress – furniture, appliances, and piles of beer cans – discarded by less well-intentioned visitors.
With painful but persistent effort, however, steady progress has been made in the past six years. A small grant from Virginia Commonwealth University enabled Shuck to buy more tools and work gloves to share with his ever-expanding base of regular volunteers, including one who combs through East End’s undergrowth hoping to find the grave of his grandmother. Keith Conley was just a boy when she was buried here in 1963, but his memories of her funeral remain vivid.
“This place wasn’t an eyesore back then,” he says, gesturing toward a pile of tires recently dumped along the side of one of Shuck’s newly cleared paths. “It wasn’t an absolute mess.”
Conley smiles and shakes his head when asked how frustrating his fruitless efforts have proven. “Every time I find a new grave, to me it’s the same as finding my grandmother’s.” He spreads his hands before him toward the cemetery, eyes wide for emphasis. “To me, these are all my family members now.”
As the tombstones are slowly uncovered – the vast majority of East End’s estimated 5,000 grave markers remain swallowed by overgrowth – so too is a painful but vitally important component of Richmond’s history.
“John’s work is important to the city for several reasons,” says Dr. Ryan K. Smith, an Associate Professor of History at VCU. “There’s a dignity that it will help instill for generations of people of African-American descent who were treated like second-hand citizens for so long.”
Those buried at East End and Evergreen, Smith points out, lived in an era of their city’s history in which African-Americans faced nearly a 25-percent infant mortality rate. Fewer than half of black children old enough to go to school in 1890 were able to, and consequently 80 percent of the black workforce occupied unskilled and thankless jobs in factories, restaurants and hotels.
That the charge to restore their graveyards is led by an elderly white man from Iowa is a source of inspiration for Smith, who often introduces Shuck to his students to encourage their passion for local history.
“I’ll tell them that politicians talk about problems, and academics like me study problems,” he says. “But John Shuck has really been doing something about problems.”
And still, so much about the future of these cemeteries remains unknown. Maybe, as Shuck hears, a lumber company will make good on its old offer to uproot all of the invasive trees. Maybe, as he hopes, more will join his group of volunteers as word of their effort spreads. Maybe Keith Conley will finally find his grandmother’s grave.
But for now the only certainty is that a red pickup truck will continue to rattle up a quiet pathway every weekend. Its driver vows he’ll keep doing this as long as he’s able. And then John Shuck will step out and walk into the woods, bringing ever more hope, ever more light.
Author’s note: Shuck maintains a blog devoted to his work and regularly tweets information about upcoming work days; his Twitter handle is @findagraver.