Accountability needed over owner of historic African American cemeteries
3/6/2020, 6 a.m. | Updated on 3/6/2020, 2:37 p.m.
I’m not from Richmond, but I have kin in the ground at East End Cemetery, which is adjacent to Evergreen Cemetery. Henry Tunstall, infant son of my grandfather's sister, was buried there in 1913.
My wife, Erin, and I have been volunteering at the cemetery since late 2014 and are founding members of the Friends of East End Cemetery, the group doing the hard work of reclamation. We were mystified when, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, a state agency, secretly tapped the Enrichmond Foundation in 2016 to acquire both Evergreen and East End cemeteries.
VOF had pledged $400,000 to the cemeteries. Many partners were named in the document used to secure that grant from VOF's board. Enrichmond was listed, but so were the Friends of East End Cemetery, our sister reclamation group at Evergreen, the City of Richmond and others. In the end, the funding went to one favored entity: Enrichmond. This grant money, along with some private funds, enabled Enrichmond's executive director, John Sydnor, to purchase Evergreen Cemetery and then East End Cemetery. He set up a company named Parity LLC to take ownership of the cemeteries. That company has one member: Mr. Sydnor.
In an opinion piece written by Mr. Sydnor and published recently by the Richmond daily newspaper, Mr. Sydnor claims to be the in the "lead stewardship role" at East End, where his group has conducted a single workday - on the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday on Jan. 20. By contrast, the Friends of Est End Cemetery has coordinated hundreds of volunteer workdays since the summer of 2013 and, with our university partners, led the effort to reclaim the history of the cemetery and the community it served.
Last Saturday, Enrichmond announced a nearly $19 million plan for its projects at Evergreen Cemetery. There are a few questions the state of Virginia needs to answer before any more taxpayer money flows into Enrichmond's coffers:
- Why did the state, through VOF, designate Enrichmond - a small nonprofit with no cemetery administration experience and no discernible presence at either East End or Evergreen - as the eventual owner of the cemeteries and sole recipient of state funds?
- Why didn't the state require Enrichmond to present a preservation plan for these two fragile sites before Enrichmond acquired Evergreen Cemetery in 2017 and East End Cemetery in 2019?
- Why is it that the legal owners of the cemeteries isn't the nonprofit Enrichmond, but Parity LLC?
- The Enrichmond Foundation has been gorging on state and federal taxpayer dollars. In 2019 it went so far as to block the Friends of East End Cemetery's application for $24,000 in state restoration funds allocated annually for the cemetery under the 2017 Historic African American Cemeteries and Graves Bill. Who got that money? Enrichmond. It got another $10,500 for Evergreen. How exactly is that money being spent?
- Finally, when will the state release public documents that explain all of the above, as well how it plans to monitor the Enrichmond Foundation at these sacred sites?
Our ancestors deserve ethical, effective and accountable stewardship of their final resting places. The living deserve answers.
The writer is a visiting professor at the University of Richmond and Peabody Award-winning freelance journalist and photographer whose work has been published in the Richmond Free Press.