County to provide $25,000 grant for land acquisition, fundraising assistance
Henrico County will contribute $25,000 to a local nonprofit organization to support its acquisition of historic Woodland Cemetery and will provide ongoing assistance in fundraising for grounds maintenance.
Woodland Cemetery, at 2300 Magnolia Road in eastern Henrico, was established in 1916 for the interment of Black residents during a time of strict segregation. With an estimated 30,000 graves across its 29 acres, Woodland Cemetery is the final resting place for such prominent individuals as tennis champion and civil rights activist Arthur Ashe Jr. and the Rev. John Jasper, founder of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church in Richmond, as well as doctors, dentists, bankers and a woman who spied for the Union during the Civil War.
With little or no funding for its maintenance, much of the cemetery has become overwhelmed and damaged by vegetative growth and vandalism in recent decades. The nonprofit Evergreen Restoration Foundation recently purchased the property with plans to restore the grounds as a place of reverence and honor for those buried there.
In a news conference at Woodland Cemetery today, Marvin Harris, executive director of the Evergreen Restoration Foundation, thanked Henrico officials, donors and the many volunteers who have worked to restore the area’s Black cemeteries. He also credited a group of classmates from Maggie L. Walker High School’s class of 1967 with getting the effort started in 2015 with a focus on Maggie L. Walker’s grave at nearby Evergreen Cemetery.
“We’re going to get this under control,” Harris said of conditions at Woodland Cemetery. “We’re going to bring this back to where it used to be, with the help of the county. Henrico has really embraced this project a thousand percent. They make it a lot easier for me to stand up here right now and indicate to the public that we will get the process done.”
To support the effort, Henrico is awarding a $25,000 grant to the nonprofit to offset acquisition costs and is pledging additional assistance as the group pursues funding from foundations, corporations and others for the cemetery’s perpetual care. Henrico also is backing the efforts of Del. Delores L. McQuinn, D-70th, to ensure state support for the maintenance of Woodland and other historic Black cemeteries.
Fairfield District Supervisor Frank J. Thornton thanked Harris for contacting him about his vision for a restored Woodland Cemetery and for working with the county to make it happen.
“Let this be a watershed moment, not just for this cemetery but for other Black cemeteries,” Thornton said. “Just as the Middle Ages inspired us with the Romanesque church and godly cathedrals, we’re here this morning to give recognition to the revival of Black cemeteries, which are repositories of history and museums.”
Henrico County Manager John A. Vithoulkas credited Thornton with taking him on a tour of the area’s neglected Black cemeteries about eight years ago, not long after he became county manager.
“I grew up in this region, and I had no idea – no idea – that cemeteries had been abandoned and history lost,” Vithoulkas said.
Since that tour, Henrico officials have joined other volunteers in cutting weeds, clearing vines and uncovering headstones at Woodland. “Up to now, it has been a never-ending battle against nature, but that, ladies and gentlemen, will soon change,” Vithoulkas said.
McQuinn said she expects Woodland to qualify for state funding for maintenance under legislation approved by the 2020 General Assembly.
“These are sacred spaces, and we must treat them as sacred spaces,” she said. “For those who contributed so much in their life, in their death, we need to contribute some of our time to make sure that we are preparing the next generation to understand how important these spaces are. These are lifelines to our history.”
In a statement released on behalf of the family, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, Ashe’s widow, welcomed the plans for Woodland Cemetery and expressed gratitude to its new owners and to Henrico.
“I am so pleased that Evergreen Restoration Foundation and Marvin Harris have acquired the Woodland Cemetery, and along with Henrico County are embarking on restoring the Cemetery,” she said. “Many leaders in Richmond’s African American community are buried at Woodland Cemetery, including my late husband, Arthur Ashe. I support these efforts to restore the Cemetery and unlock the rich stories of those buried there. A holistic understanding of Richmond’s poignant history may be the best way to lead us all into the future.”