Woodland Cemetery: Lost no more

With Henrico’s help, nonprofit uncovers thousands of gravesites in 2 years

Two years after acquiring the neglected, vine-choked property, Marvin Harris isn’t interested in slowing or pausing the work to restore historic Woodland Cemetery.

Not for Virginia’s sweltering summer heat. Not even for a broken right foot.

Tennis champion and civil rights activist Arthur R. Ashe Jr. is among the estimated 30,000 individuals interred at Woodland Cemetery.

“You couldn’t take me away from this project,” Harris said, toweling perspiration from his face and hobbling across the grounds in a protective boot – an injury caused in March by a toppled headstone.

Tucked off Magnolia Road in eastern Henrico County, Woodland was established in 1917 for the interment of Black residents at a time of strict segregation. However, with no funds for perpetual maintenance, the cemetery languished from neglect and eventually all-but vanished in a tangle of weeds, trees and brush.

As executive director of the nonprofit Woodland Restoration Foundation, Harris is leading efforts to reestablish the cemetery as a place of dignity and reverence.

On a recent morning, as three volunteers rode mowers around headstones, Harris reflected on the progress that’s been made, including about 20 acres of the 30-acre property now clear of overgrowth. That means thousands of graves previously lost to nature, including those in a section reserved for infants, are accessible to family members and other visitors.

“It’s a good feeling to know that you have brought it from where it used to look to the way it looks right now,” he said. “If you could imagine one of the family members coming to you, and they cry and they thank you because they haven’t been able to get in and physically see their ancestors for 15 or 20 years.”

Woodland has an estimated 30,000 gravesites, including those of tennis champion and civil rights activist Arthur Ashe Jr. and the Rev. John Jasper, founder of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church in Richmond. Also buried there are doctors, dentists, bankers and a woman who spied for the Union during the Civil War.

Henrico officials had been aware of the problems at Woodland but couldn’t do much to help while it was under corporate ownership. That changed in August 2020, when the county contributed $25,000 to help Harris’ nonprofit foundation purchase the property. The county continues to provide the use of equipment as well as weekly staff and occasional volunteer cleanups.

About 20 community volunteers also help regularly with mowing, brush clearing and other tasks, such as probing the ground to find hidden graves and researching library records to locate the graves of individuals buried there.

“It’s not just me,” Harris said of the energy behind the restoration.

Fairfield District Supervisor Frank J. Thornton, who has championed the restoration of Woodland Cemetery, said the foundation’s work and Henrico’s support are making a difference.

Marvin Harris, executive director of the Woodland Restoration Foundation, speaks at the August 2020 announcement of the nonprofit organization’s plans to purchase and restore Woodland Cemetery.

“It’s wonderful to see Woodland Cemetery becoming once again a place of respect and reverence for the members of our community who are buried there,” he said. “I applaud Mr. Harris and the foundation not only for maintaining the grounds but also for beginning to develop a vision for the future of this historic place.”

Harris, a 1967 graduate of Maggie L. Walker High School, said his interest in restoring the area’s historic Black cemeteries was piqued in 2015 at Evergreen Cemetery, where banking pioneer Maggie L. Walker is buried. Over time, his focus shifted to Woodland.

With much of the cemetery now accessible, Harris and other supporters are beginning to focus on aesthetic improvements.

To commemorate Jasper’s 210th birthday, Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church in Richmond installed in June an interpretative panel at his gravesite that details the church founder’s life and accomplishments.

Liquid Inc., an excavation and construction firm owned by Ashe’s brother-in-law David Harris Sr., repaired the base to Jasper’s headstone. The Henrico-based company also put in fresh cement to refurbish the cemetery’s gated entrance and its circle. That’s where a fountain will eventually be installed to further recapture how Woodland looked in its prime. Those improvements were provided either at no cost or a significant discount, according to the foundation.

Even students from Henrico County Public Schools have chipped in, preparing meals to feed volunteers and producing a rendering that imagines what an education center might look like. Students at the Advanced Career Education (ACE) Center at Hermitage High School prepared the rendering as part of their class in computer-aided design and 3D animation.

Harris also wants to renovate the small chapel to offer educational programs and fix the roads, which are rutty with broken asphalt, dirt and gravel. Those improvements would likely cost $1.8 million and require 10 to 12 years of fundraising on a national scale, he said.

In the meantime, there will be plenty of grass to cut and more graves to uncover.

Harris encourages relatives of those buried at Woodland to make regular contributions for maintenance. And with recent changes to Virginia law, the nonprofit foundation is eligible to receive state funding – $5 per grave – that’s available for upkeep of African American graves and cemeteries that were established before 1948.

Harris said the progress is tangible, but more help is needed. While he doesn’t have ancestors at Woodland, he feels a connection with all who are remembered there.

“We’ve got about 30,000 people here saying ‘thank you,’” he said.

For more information on Woodland Cemetery and the Woodland Restoration Foundation, call (804) 240-1418 or go to woodlandrestorationfoundation.org.

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