by Haley Turner
Somewhere tucked away in Richmond’s historical East End is a covered treasure. It is literally covered by a blanket of ivy. East End Cemetery is a burial ground established in 1897 for African American residents and it is still an active burial ground. On MLK day my VMP cohort and I showed up bright and early and were greeted with garden tools and a decent amount of other volunteers who wanted to serve. As we spent the morning tugging, tearing, and tripping over brush and debris that we hauled to the road, I found myself becoming charmed by this 15 acre patch of land that should be treated the same as other famous cemeteries but somehow seems mostly forgotten about by the public.
“I started cleaning the area in 2008” says John Shuck, the program volunteer coordinator for the cemetery. It seems like he sees this space as is his mission, his responsibility, and his right to clean up even though he has no legal obligations. This got me thinking about what serving was really about for me. It is about a sense of pride and a statement to the public that you stand for something important. The hope for me is that the community notices the service and they gravitate towards the mission and feel empowered by that. “We don’t get much volunteering from the community right near us” John said, but he seems more than willing to hand a tool to anyone who wants an honest day of physical labor to a place that merits some TLC.
I think the highlight of my time spent there was seeing families come out together. What a wonderful bonding experience to uncovering buried grave stones and thinking about what the deceased had fought for and the ways that they may have served. There are civil right activists buried in this area! Not to be too morbid but what doesn’t kill you makes your stronger, and I feel a stronger connection to Richmond and the historical context that it is overflowing with.