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.