It’s complicated

Beleaguered foundation’s last member determined to maintain Black cemeteries, despite ongoing obstacles

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 1/26/2023, 6 p.m.
The last board member of the collapsed Enrichmond Foundation is working to turn over to City Hall control of two ...
Mr. Mitchell Photo courtesy of JN04

The last board member of the collapsed Enrichmond Foundation is working to turn over to City Hall control of two historic Black cemeteries as well as other properties and assets still in the foundation’s name.

John H. Mitchell, a volunteer like the other resigned board members, stated that his goal is to have the city accept the assets, particularly Evergreen and East End cemeteries that date to the 1890s and border the city’s Oakwood Cemetery.

He has taken on the role after joining the foundation in June 2021 as Evergreen’s first community ambassador. He became a board member a year later as the foundation was shutting down.

Mr. Mitchell stated that he is using his family’s Richmond Planet Foundation to secure state and volunteer help to maintain the cemeteries during the dissolution process.

“The mission continues,” said Mr. Mitchell, the great-great-nephew of John Mitchell Jr., who was a banker, City Council leader and fiery editor of the former Richmond Planet newspaper.

Mr. Mitchell said he and the other board members spent 2022 trying to find a way to dissolve in an orderly fashion to “provide a path to repay creditors and to turn over (the cemeteries) to the City of Richmond per the Enrichmond bylaws.”

He said the foundation’s historical documents, financial records, computers and other stored items already have been given to the city.

Despite consultation with legal advisers, he stated that the board could not find solu- tions to the financial challenges. Ultimately, the foundation’s situation proved “much too complicated for a volunteer board to resolve,” he continued in a statement to the Free Press.

He stated he chose to stay after the other board members resigned because “I just want to see the cemeteries remain clean and move forward, no matter who is at the helm.”

Transfer of the cemeteries and the other properties is still a work in progress, he stated.

“While slow, the city is responding to the task. But it is out of my control. I’m pretty much support services at this point,” he stated.

City officials so far have not reported any decision to take control of the burial grounds to City Council’s Education and Human Services Committee.

While waiting for the city to act, Mr. Mitchell said in a telephone interview that his foundation has secured an agreement with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, which he said has stepped up to cover the cost of keeping Evergreen mowed during the fall.

He said his foundation also has worked with a host of volunteer groups, ranging from Richmond-area Black firefighters to military veterans and Black Greek fraternities and sororities who helped to maintain the two cemeteries.

Mr. Mitchell also noted that John Shuck and the Friends of East End Cemetery have returned and are now engaged in maintaining that cemetery.

Created more than 30 years ago, Enrichmond long served as a conduit for private and public donations to be used to benefit city parks and recreation programs. Enrichmond also served as an umbrella nonprofit for 86 small community groups that banked their money with the organization.

However, Enrichmond apparently became overwhelmed financially after accepting the two cemeteries with help from the Virginia Outdoors Foundation.

There is no evidence that the foundation was able to raise the money that was needed to cover the full costs of staff and maintenance or the consultants who were hired.

According to a timeline the foundation’s board created, the foundation’s underpinnings were further undermined after Mayor Levar M. Stoney pulled the city’s $75,000 annual contribution in 2021 and refused, with council support, to restore it in 2022.

The foundation obtained a Small Business Administration loan in a bid to remain in operation, but that source ran out.

The board became aware the financial troubles were far more significant than anticipated in December 2021, the timeline shows, when John Sydnor, then executive director, presented the annual financial report that was to go to the IRS and also sought permission to seek additional loans to help stabilize the foundation.

In order to keep the foundation going, an estimated $165,000 the 86 organizations collectively had banked with Enrichmond was used to cover foundation costs.

Mr. Mitchell stated he is a member of the Armstrong Walker Legacy Project, one of the organizations that lost money as a result of the foundation’s collapse.

The Project, like the other organizations, has struggled to replace the lost funds.

By April 2022, Mr. Sydnor resigned to take a position elsewhere after the board declined to borrow additional funds and the foundation’s bank account essentially hit empty, according to the timeline.

At this point, neither the city nor the council has sought to use part of the city’s estimated $36 million surplus from the 2021-22 fiscal year to reimburse the community groups whose money has disappeared, leaving those organizations that operate community gardens, restore historic buildings and tackle other community endeavors in limbo.

Hopes for a criminal investigation also have evaporated.

Both the Richmond Police Department and Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office have rejected a probe, considering the transfer of the community groups’ funds to other uses as a civil matter as there has been no evidence the money personally benefitted anyone associated with the foundation.

Mr. Mitchell remains buoyed by the calls and requests he gets from descendants of those who are buried in the two cemeteries.

“They are adamant,” he said, “that even though Enrichmond will disappear, East End and Evergreen will always be our historic legacy. The work and responsibility of caring for those burial grounds will always be ours to carry on.”