Located off of Magnolia Road in Henrico, Virginia lies the historic Woodland Cemetery. It is estimated that about 30,000 people have been laid to rest here in its 29 acres. It is the second largest Black cemetery in the Richmond area, the first being Evergreen Cemetery. Black people buried in these cemeteries and others blazed the trail for the community that exists in the Richmond area today. Over the decades, Woodland Cemetery fell into disrepair due to limited funds. Families and volunteers have struggled to maintain the overgrown grounds. Recently, the non-profit Woodland Restoration Foundation purchased the cemetery and is currently restoring it as a place of honor and reverence to those buried there.
The land for Woodland Cemetery was initially acquired in 1891 when the Greenwood Memorial Association was formed. The land was called the Hedge Plain and was located on the northern edge of the city. White landowners brought suit against Greenwood and shut down the process of the land becoming a cemetery. In 1917, John Mitchell, Jr. created the Woodland Cemetery Corporation and acquired the Hedge Plain land. Mitchell was an American businessman, newspaper editor, publisher, and civil rights activist. He designed the layout of the cemetery with inspiration from Hollywood Cemetery.
The radial design of the cemetery circles back and pays tribute to African American leaders, with separate circled roads named after Frederick Douglass and Booker T Washington. The road bisecting the circles is named after the preacher and philosopher John Jasper, who is buried in this cemetery as well. The front entrance includes large granite pillars and an iron gate, built by William R. Mason, a local contractor. A chapel and a keeper’s house were built at the back of the property.
The most notable burial in the cemetery is that of tennis champion and social activist, Arthur Ashe Jr., who is buried next to his mother, Mattie Ashe.
Ashe was quoted as saying, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” That is what volunteers from the Woodland Restoration Foundation (previously Evergreen Restoration Foundation) and others over time have done to help reclaim the Woodland Cemetery. Marvin Harris (creator of the Woodland Restoration Foundation) and Kathleen Harrell (Henrico elementary school teacher) are and have been heavily involved in leading the volunteer efforts. The county has also been involved and supportive, financially as well as employees volunteering their time. They also arrange for the pick-up of the brush piles that are created while clearing different areas of the cemetery and loan equipment to the volunteers.
Find a Grave® Volunteer, John Shuck has been working in Woodland Cemetery and photographing headstones since 2008. John is from the Midwest and hadn’t seen overgrown cemeteries like those that he has worked in. He has been involved with the restoration of at least six overgrown Black cemeteries in the Richmond area, many times as a volunteer coordinator. John considers these cemeteries as “archeological sites because records are relatively sparse so the only way we may understand the cemetery is by observing, investigating and recording what we find on site using whatever means are available.”
Recently, volunteers uncovered these two headstones. These stones are extremely important to preserve and record, being a cultural record for the family and historical period.
One of the primary reasons John does this work is “to help family members locate the graves of loved ones.” He shared a story with us along those lines:
“Last year a gentleman showed up at the cemetery looking for his grandfather’s grave. I went in to the Find a Grave app and saw that we located it and had GPS coordinates and was able to walk with him to show where it was. He told me “You made my day, no you made my month”. People are so happy to see that folks now care about these cemeteries. Tears are not uncommon. Every new grave we find, means that potentially a person can reconnect with their past.”
In June of 2020, John and other volunteers started clearing part of the cemetery called the fountain area. It was covered in overgrown brush and vegetation with only three stones visable.
They cut back the overgrowth and revealed the other headstones and burial locations. New cement was poured to restore the original design. The headstones have all been photographed and uploaded to Find a Grave along with GPS location.
In Woodland about 15,000 burials are in their records currently and volunteers are working on adding those records to Find a Grave. All the records prior to 1927 have been lost. Many of the headstones don’t include a birth year but do include the age at death. They have been using Virginia death certificates to verify who is buried in Woodland as well as their birth year. They work tirelessly probing and uncovering headstones and found over 1,400 in 2021. By whatever means possible, they are searching for the headstones; mowing, probing, clearing brush, and even bringing goats to help clear the area.
John Shuck uses virtual cemeteries to keep track of burials with markers or without, as well as military markers. They have also found burials that only have a temporary marker donated by the funeral home, some of which have deteriorated over time.
There is so much to learn about those buried in Woodland Cemetery and other Black cemeteries. A few years ago, Virginia passed a bill called the Historic African American Cemeteries bill which allows projects in Black cemeteries founded before 1900 to apply for a grant equal to five dollars times the number of people buried in the cemetery who lived in the 19th century. This year there is hope that the bill will be amended to include cemeteries founded before 1948, which would include Woodland Cemetery. Researchers and cemetery volunteers could assist the cemetery by finding and verifying burials. Funding from this bill could help with additional research and the upkeep of the cemetery.
There are plans to turn the chapel at Woodland into a museum to educate the community about the cemetery and the people buried there like William Washington Browne, a minster, and founder of the True Reformers, or Leslie Bolling, a self taught sculptor, and others. There are lives and stories waiting to be uncovered at Woodland Cemetery and other Black cemeteries. These were people who struggled for justice and equality and faced racial discrimination and segregation in their daily lives. Let’s discover their stories and pay tribute to them by remembering them, honoring them and continuing to restore and support the cemeteries where they are buried.
You are doing wonderful work. Thanking u for all the families who are looking for the ancestors.
There is only one word to describe this article… Dedication.
My Heart goes out To all who are helping in whatever way that they do. As a small time genealogist I know what a major help you are giving others. Thank You & may God Bless you.
My heart is touched by this mail, and the love and compassion of all involved. The present world needs more care and help for one another instead of the direction it is now going. Thanks to all.
Amen to that statement! As far as I know, I do not have any ancestors in that cemetary, my roots are more in West Virginia than in any other state, as far as I know, and I also am white, not black, but as a child of God we are actually all related.
who can help me find a grave in Mass?
I think the Woodland project is just wonderful. An old abandoned and overgrown graveyard in Charlottesville was also restored a few years ago. The Daughters of Zion Cemetery was cleaned up and later a ceremony was held during which time a historical marker was placed there. Descendants of some of the people buried there, even some from other cities and other states, were in attendance. There are many efforts in our area to find and make known significant Places of African American history. The Daughters of Zion Cemetery has been listed on the National Register of Historic places and the Virginia Landmarks Register.
(See the Preservers of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery on Facebook)
Have you ever looked at Find a Grave.com?
Do you have an Ancestry.com account? If not, I’ll do some searching for you; there and other online sources.
In Massachusetts? Where? Need more info than you provided to know whether or not anyone can help you.
Delcia , what area or ciy in Massachusettes ?
If you haven’t already, check on Find A Grave.com
This kind of contribution
, dedication, caring, and unselfishness is what I think about when volunteers to findagrave are referred to as “hoarders, collectors,” or “in it for the numbers.” It makes me so sick to see those kinds of comments because they have literally NO idea what kind of sacrifice it takes to do this kind of work. It truly is a work of love and I think you so much for doing this!
Thanks for this article. There some great folks out there in the world yet! And I would be thrilled to be in a cemetery where goats cut the grass…..
I volunteered here with a group before Thanksgiving. Before that day I didn’t know it existed. The work they’ve done is staggering and impressive. I was with a large crew of 30 or so, had worked for many hours with chainsaws and only got a small area finished. So.much.work.left. Many sunken graves due to no regulations or customs of cement vaults around the coffins. Many headstones uprooted at the bottom of massive trees. It’s mind boggling but would be an adventure you won’t forget. Worthy project for any organization you may be involved with if you happen to be passing through on your way to/from DC. Make it an annual event or maybe sponsor a local youth group. It would be worth every effort you could make.
i have had a bad day today but since i read this i thought what does my bad day really mean when you see this dedication helping to bring back history so our grandkids know what a struggle minorities had years ago and even today.
Thankyou to all the Volunteers jACK
Thank you for an informative article, and “good work!” to all volunteers and others involved with recovering this cemetery’s rich history. A labor of love that will benefit generations now and to come.
This is a labor of love indeed!!! Many of the volunteers that helped with the restoration of this Historic Cemetery have no family interred here. They work to restore the respect that is desired and commanded by the people interred here.
Please take a moment to visit our website listed below,
woodland restoration foundation.org
I love that you got the goats involved. God’s creatures.
How wonderful. 😊
I am impressed with the dedication of those who do restoration work like this. Fortunately, my parents are lying
in such a well maintained place in Detroit.
Thank you for highlightin a worthy site for donors interested in ALL history.
This is awesome. I have never encountered sites like this before! Therefore, I never thought about the fact such places do actually exist. Thank you for opening my eyes! God bless the volunteers that have helped to restore this place. Are there any in the Dallas/Fort Worth, TX area or in NE?
I think this is so great that volunteers take the time to uncover history and heritage for many. There are many old cemeteries across the country that aren’t known about and offer so much history.
I cannot verbalize my heartfelt appreciation for the continued 💓 work. Thank you immensely..
Way to go, Woodland Cemetery Volunteers!
This is so interesting. I came from a small town, Patterson, N..Y. and a few volunteers from the Patterson Historical Society cleaned up an abandoned cemetery discovering tombstones dated in the 1700s. Wish they had known about the goats, it would have been so helpful.
What a wonderful piece! It’s always important to remember the past like this.
It’s unfortunate to know that there’s so many Americans buried throughout the U.S. with no record, marker, etc… to remember & honor their life.
I always remember (as I’m paraphrasing this) “you may not have liked something about someone in life, but it’s important to remember them when they pass as it can only be an example (good or bad) to know what to do or not to do in the future.”.
I am so happy to see that there are so many individuals who are so enthusiastic about re-claiming cemeteries. My paternal grandmother, who died when my father was 15, is buried in a Virginia cemetery without a marker. It was only through an aunt who one day asked me if I knew where she is buried, and I told her that my father never talked about her. This aunt told me the name of the cemetery, which I located, and drove to it. Without a marker or anyone who actually knew where her grave was located, I found a sign which gave a phone number of the caretaker company. I called and a gentleman told me the grave location, and said there was no marker. He began to tell me the location, and I told him that “something” directed me to within 15 feet of the grave! I am now going to see to it that an appropriate marker is erected – she died in 1927, so I believe it is time to honor her. I sincerely hope that more people get involved in restoration of cemeteries-especially family, that have had no, or little, attention for years. Spencer
I loved loved loved reading this article. My heart is full because it’s wonderful to know “our” history, lost lives and ancestors are being uncovered and presented to the world. Blessings!
This is a wonderful story! Congratulations to all who have made this happen, and those who will carry on. Every life has meaning, and a story to tell, and sometimes it begins where they are buried.
As a mega-fan of cemeteries, I can only applaud the magnificent Efforts of all volunteers involved in restoration. Truly, it is so worthwhile.
What a tremendous idea to bring goats into the fold. Good old ways of working should never be forgotten. There’s the ecological aspect, too. Don’t goats turn all the scrub into compostable goodness?
Sincere thanks for your labour of love, to everyone involved. I am on the other side of the Atlantic but, I do hope to visit the cemetery.
What a beautiful and touching article. Blessings to all the volunteers that have worked so hard to revitalize this cemetery! Pam
Growing up just off of Nuckols road at twin hickory road, there was 2 fenced areas with old metal flower hangers (where Walgreens is now), just wondering if they moved the Graves or if they built over them because no one claimed them.
It is a blessing to rediscover and restore the sacred sites of our forbearers. I have spearheaded the restoration and preservation of 13 African Canadian cemeteries in Essex County, Ontario, Canada. A 50 plus year labor of love and reverence. Bravo!!
Many members of my paternal grand-father, are buried in the “colored” section of the graveyard once owned by St. Michael Catholic Church in Convent, St. James Parish, Louisiana. Unfortunately, the old graves are without markers and when I inquired I was told the area is in disrepair and there was no way to learn who is buried where.
I think the volunteers who do this work are to be thanked and highly praised. What a gift for the ancestors!
Nobody should be forgotten. I am glad to see that so many people care.
I applaud these volunteers and volunteers everywhere who work tirelessly to uncover and highlight our ancestry and the contributions of our ancestors, especially now when there are those who would dare to attempt to erase Black People’s presence in history. We WERE! We ARE! We WILL BE! BLACK LIVES MATTER!
This is wonderful! I’ve passed by Woodland for years, living in East Highland Park, and had no idea how extensive and famed the cemetery is. This refurbishing work is so long overdue. Applause to all the people who are making it happen.
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