Somewhere in Virginia, in tangles of fast-growing birch and poison ivy, the archive of an entire people is in danger of disappearing.
For generations, thousands of historic Black cemeteries have languished in forgotten forests and at the ends of dirt roads all over the American South. Sunk in odd acreages or corseted beneath modern powerlines, the dead wait, their monuments crowned in bees’ hum. Perhaps you’ve driven or hiked past these overgrown spaces without knowing what they are. Repositories of memory. Portals to long-lost worlds. Many of the elders buried here were born into slavery, survived the Civil War, and built vibrant communities in freedom. Now, their descendants have dispersed like dandelion clocks, traveling in vast constellations of knowing and not-knowing.
What is the American way of forgetting? Centuries ago, medieval castle-builders named their underground dungeons oubliettes and buried within them anyone they wanted to forget: political prisoners, unruly peasants, members of rival clans. In America, we’ve turned that process on its head. We build our oubliettes above ground, by letting weeds grow over certain tombstones, by stacking tires and dumping trash in graveyards, or by slicing highways through historically Black neighborhoods. This “work” began long before many of us were born, the result of decades of selective resource distribution and institutional inertia. It is, of course, a process of terrible efficiency, this American forgetting-machine. We can wall ourselves off from memory, but at what cost?
For the past seven years, journalist and photographer Brian Palmer has been documenting neglected African American burial grounds in Virginia and elsewhere. Locating this work “at the intersection of racial justice and history,” he uses visual reportage in service of Black communal memory. Part of the work is collaborative. As founding members of the Friends of East End Cemetery in Richmond, Brian and his wife, journalist Erin Hollaway Palmer, have helped lead volunteers in clearing Virginia creeper from headstones and cutting down the curtains of ivy obscuring individual plots. They have also conducted painstaking research into the stories of the dead. At the same time, Brian takes photos—thousands of them.
“What we see now is not the full story of what was,” Brian tells me. “You can only understand that when you know the history of African Americans and have respect for it.” Photograph by photograph, he is building an archive to counter more than a century of decay. In the nineteenth century, cemeteries like East End rose all over the South, even as Jim Crow legislation rapidly hardened the color line. Barred from white cemeteries, Black families buried loved ones in small churchyards and in their own backyards. City dwellers, like the Black Richmonders buried at East End, pooled their resources to establish communal cemeteries. Even beneath the poison oak and fallen leaves, these graves preserve a still-shimmering network of Black intentionality and mutual care.
Like white families, Black elders carved epitaphs and raised funerary monuments, using donations from neighbors to do so. Unlike some historic white cemeteries, however, these grounds received no public funding for maintenance or preservation. “Resources were given to Confederate cemeteries in Virginia year after year by the General Assembly,” Brian says. “Nothing for historic African American cemeteries.”
How does a community lose its memory? Decades of segregation, discrimination, and institutional racism have worked their way like creeping vines, prising basic infrastructure and financial resources from local areas. Throughout the twentieth century, as families departed the South for opportunities in the industrialized North and Midwest, untold numbers of ancestral cemeteries fell into obscurity. Meanwhile, city-road projects like the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike carved up once-prosperous Black neighborhoods, decimating these historic spaces. All of this, Brian says, has “eroded the private maintenance system [for cemeteries], the system of care that enabled these places to survive.” Brian hopes to bring that spirit of care—and an influx of funds—back to these cemeteries by sharing images of these largely forgotten places.
Viewing the photographs is a heady experience. As stubborn stalks of invasive tree of heaven give way beneath spade and pruning shear, the original, park-like design of East End reappears. We see acres of undulating green, punctuated by the cones and obelisks of stone monuments. At first, the photography seems to open a doorway to exquisite realms. Late-afternoon sunlight slants through trees, laying thick gold strokes across a headstone nearly buried in leaf litter. In another image, a slim trunk, weighted by ivy or wild grape, arches over a pale, upright monument, as if to form a magical bower. Many shots are close to the ground, showing deep blankets of spiraling green vegetation surrounding the flat headstones. They—we—are nearly swallowed in glimmering, jewel-like textures.
The people buried here may be sleeping, as their epitaphs reverently suggest, but as I move from image to image, I think of slumber, a fairy-tale word for the seductive drowse of collective forgetting. If these cemeteries are not saved, the pernicious slumber occasioned by racism threatens to engulf the living in fitful, amnesiac sleep. Each grave marker revealed by the Palmers delivers us back to individual stories and to the close network of relationships at the historic center of Black life. But the emergency Brian captures in his photographs is a slow-motion cascade: Hundreds of gravestones tilt in the crabgrass, amid chucked garbage and broken liquor bottles. Speaking of East End, Brian tells me that “elected and appointed officials see these sites as disposable, as eyesores or liabilities. [There is] such a lack of respect for the community buried there, and the thinking [is] that such a Black space has been permanently devalued.”
In her book Hidden History: African American Cemeteries in Central Virginia, historian Lynn Rainville writes: “We lose important pieces of local and family history when we allow these sacred sites to go unrecorded and disappear.” The pronoun is significant; this work of preserving memory involves a collective effort from all of us, especially in the absence of formalized mechanisms of institutional support. Rainville, who researched three dozen antebellum cemeteries for Hidden History, notes there is no national, comprehensive database for Black or white American cemeteries, only a patchwork of websites, maps, and regional records forming an incomplete register. Through his photographs, Brian has crafted a factual repository and a potential bulwark against historical erasure.
East End Cemetery is full of life. Thousands of epitaphs offer portraits of the people buried there: A true friend. She lived for others. He is not dead he is just away. You learn, too, about the Black-led organizations that helped pay for these gravestones: Booker T. Washington School; Rosalyn’s Beauty Salon; Purple Astor Household of Ruth. The unmistakable curves of US military-issued headstones are here too. Black veterans with service dating back more than a century rest alongside teachers, pastors, homemakers, and friends. Working almost entirely by hand, the Friends of East End Cemetery have cleared about ten acres of land and revealed more than three thousand grave markers among the estimated fifteen thousand individual burial sites in the area.
When he first started photographing these sites, Brian says he experienced a range of complex emotions. Back then, he worked swiftly—perhaps too swiftly—daunted, at first, by the density and scale of the foliage. “I feared—despair would not be too strong a word—that we’d never gather enough people, never make a dent.” Then something changed. “I allowed those inscriptions by fathers, mothers, fellow congregants, and coworkers to accumulate inside me,” he says. “That’s when I really understood what those places were and still are.”
These photographs make me want to walk among the gravestones in my town, to enter them as I would a holy archive. “Sweep away the English ivy and read the inscriptions that people have carved,” Brian counsels. “They speak of love.”
— Kiki Petrosino