Racial Segregation Survives Death

Jun 3, 2016

The legacy of segregated cemeteries is seemingly everywhere in Virginia, including in Lexington.  Every year, hundreds of tourists flock to Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery to pay respects to the old Confederate general. Few visitors are aware of the graveyard on the other side of town – or its storied legacy. WMRA’s Faith Pinho has this report.

Past the CVS Pharmacy and the Kroger grocery store, just before you get to the dead end on New Market Place, Evergreen Cemetery sits tucked away behind a grove of overgrown trees.

DOUG HARWOOD: I don’t think there’s a white person buried in that cemetery. I seriously doubt it, but there might be. You know, and that’s just the South.

That’s Doug Harwood, founder and editor of The Rockbridge Advocate newspaper.

You have to really look if you’re trying to find Evergreen -- unlike the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery, which sits prominently on Main Street.  I recently caught up with Bryan Crews finishing up his lunch break there.  He’s in his tenth year at Stonewall Jackson as a cemetery maintenance worker.

BRYAN CREWS: It’s probably 90 percent Caucasian and 10 percent African-American maybe.  Well we have an African-American cemetery over, behind CVS. It’s kind of still segregated in a way. Like all the black people tend to be buried there and all the white people tend to be buried here. Yeah, it’s kind of crazy, you know.

Evergreen originally started as the burial place for deceased slaves.  Until 1971, an African-American board of trustees maintained Evergreen – doing everything from cutting the grass to conducting burials. Once someone was buried, the family was expected to maintain the grave site itself. Longtime Lexington resident Leroy Watts once spent decades on the board, shoveling out dirt for every African-American funeral in town. He said the grueling work finally became too much to handle.

LEROY WATTS: It got so that we couldn’t take care of it. It just growed up. And so the cemetery board went to the city and the city took it over.

That was 45 years ago and now the city of Lexington manages both cemeteries, one black, one white.

Although the city recognizes that the cemeteries are separated by race – and have been so since their beginnings – city officials are adamant that the segregation is not grounded anywhere in the law. While there are no more laws mandating segregated public spaces, there was a time when Jim Crow ruled Lexington. Fifty-nine-year-old Marquita Dunn -- a lifelong Lexington resident -- remembers when blacks and whites went to different schools, sat in different parts of the movie theater and lived in different neighborhoods.

MARQUITA DUNN: We didn’t hang together. I can remember when I was in high school. It was segregated -- blacks sat on one side, whites sat on the other. … When I was in high school, in the lunchroom, it was segregated. Blacks were on one side, whites were on the other. Eventually it came to be where, you know, a few mingled. But that’s just the way it was.

Segregation in public places was enforced until 1965, when the Civil Rights Act made it illegal. According to Dunn, Lexington accepted the change peacefully. Yet acceptance of a new rule did not mean change in practice. Today, the Diamond Hill neighborhood that once became home to newly freed slaves is still predominantly African-American. Two churches, Randolph Street United Methodist and First Baptist, are still known locally as the black churches.

Before the City of Lexington bought the land for Evergreen, black residents had traditionally buried their kin at a site that is now adjacent to City Hall. That spot filled up with coffins until 1880, when the City finally had to look elsewhere for space.

City officials say that the bones from the City Hall cemetery were exhumed and moved to Evergreen. The official document of the cemetery’s history says, quote, “all the bodies had been moved to Evergreen Cemetery by September 1946 and the old Cemetery was sold soon thereafter.”

TED DELANEY: The lore in the black community was that the graves were never really excavated. So they did not dig deep enough to find skeletal remains to move to the Evergreen Cemetery.

Ted Delaney -- a professor of African-American History at Washington and Lee University -- has lived in Lexington almost his whole life. He said that barely more than a shovelful of soil was ever moved from the City Hall site to Evergreen.

Today, several unmarked graves sit in Evergreen. No one knows who is buried there.  The legacy of segregation lives on, passed down from generation to generation, through stories and grave plots. Though “whites only” signs are gone and schools have been integrated, the separation of race persists – even after death.