Granite Community Foundation unearths lost community legacy in South Side

Darlene M. Johnson | 5/2/2024, 6 p.m.
Bridget Blake and Katrina Clarke are on a mission to preserve their family history and honor their ancestors buried in …
Bridget Blake is one of the many descendants of family members who are buried in the Green Cemetery on her mother’s property in the Granite Community on Richmond’s South Side. Photo by Regina H. Boone

Bridget Blake and Katrina Clarke are on a mission to preserve their family history and honor their ancestors buried in Green Cemetery located in the Granite community near what is now Stratford Hills in Richmond’s South Side.

Mrs. Clarke, 49, is the president and one of four co-founders of the Granite Community Foundation. The foundation’s main purpose is to highlight Granite, tell the stories of the African-Americans that have lived there and inform the public about “a family that prospered here for centuries,” she said. The GCF has 16 members who are all related by marriage or blood, and are descendants of the deceased buried in the Green Cemetery.

The GCF was formed through the planning of a family reunion and was established as a nonprofit on Jan. 11, Mrs. Clarke said, although the family began researching their history last year.

“While we were working on our history, I remembered as a little girl, a family member was telling us about gravesites in the (Granite) area with family members (buried),” Mrs. Clarke said.

Mrs. Clarke and Emmanuel Hyde, who is documenting and writing a book about the community’s history, then reached out to Bridget Blake, 63, and her mother.

The Blakes were excited to delve into the family history and get more information about the area and their lineage.

Bridget Blake’s mother’s property is in front of Green Cemetery and connected to Gravel Hill Baptist Church. The family land was Ms. Blake’s great-grandfather Robert Green’s and his brothers’, dating back to the 1800s. The property will be passed down to Ms. Blake.

Granite was “all slave property,” Ms. Blake said. Over time, outside families bought property in Granite, which led to gravesites being on other properties. At least 50 people are buried on the Blake property. More graves are on two other properties across from the Blake property, Ms. Blake said.

Ms. Blake’s mother and her mother’s cousin, who is deceased, were the only two people maintaining the cemetery up until 15 years ago. The cemetery was unkempt for years, but things are turning around.

A work in progress

Ms. Blake began these efforts to preserve Green Cemetery around 2015 when she and a few of her cousins made a path to the cemetery, she said. With the help of contractors, the family was able to clear trees on the path and around the gravesites.

A landscaper also donated lights to put along the path.

More recently, the GCF had a group cleanup of the cemetery on March 16. The cleanup crew of about 20 people included Ms. Blake, Mrs. Clarke and other relatives. The group cleared debris from the concrete headstones and tried to identify some of them with faded engravings, Mrs. Clarke said. The headstones with names were hand engraved by Ms. Blake’s great-grandfather.

Ms. Blake plans to clean and restore some of the hidden graves in the cemetery. A majority of the graves do not have headstones, she said. The Virginia Department of Historic Resources, who surveyed the area around 2020, placed markers on some of the graves without them. Many were displaced due to trespassers running dirt bikes over the graves, Ms. Blake said. She wants to buy cement bases with epitaphs engraved to replace the missing headstones.

The DHR returned to Green Cemetery on April 24, Ms. Blake said. After a few weeks, the graves will be recorded and the documentation will be sent back to the family for final approval. The cemetery will then be entered into the historic registry.

“The reason I wanted DHR to record (the graves) is so there’s that (record) when I’m gone. Nobody can dispute those graves were there,” Ms. Blake said. “They’ve been there. I wanted to record it in history.”

Looking ahead

While it is warming up outside, some family members will make sure the cemetery is maintained until the fall, when the family will come together as a group, Ms. Clarke said. She hopes to “make sure we maintain it at least yearly, but on a regular basis … and make sure everything is clear.” The GCF is looking into grants and donations to help fund the upkeep of the cemetery.

As the foundation is only in its first year, Ms. Clarke hopes word of mouth and promotion, with the backing of Gravel Hill Baptist Church, will help with community outreach. She looks forward to meeting with other organizations and informing the public about the purpose of the foundation.

“That is one of our goals, not just to be a name but to be able to reach out to the community and to be able to help the community in any kind of way they need,” Ms. Clarke said.