Portrait of Ryan Smith in front of a brick wall.
Ryan Smith is interested in cemeteries as sources to understand the past and as important subjects in their own right. (Contributed photo)

VCU history professor Ryan Smith to explore ‘Liberty and Death in St. John’s Churchyard’ on May 25

Smith’s lecture will draw from his most recent book “Death and Rebirth in a Southern City: Richmond’s Historic Cemeteries.”

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Ryan Smith discovered his passion for the past from watching his father, an architect who specialized in historic preservation. Smith would often accompany him to job sites.

“I’ve always loved historic sites, art and architecture as a way to understand the past,” said Smith, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University.

On May 25, Smith will present his lecture “Liberty and Death in St. John’s Churchyard” at Richmond’s historic St. John’s Church, the site of Patrick Henry ’s famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech in 1775.

His lecture is part of this year’s Walter W. Craigie Speaker series, which was initiated in 2016 and has included several high-profile speakers including Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Paul Williams.

“I’m proud to be invited to be part of it,” Smith said. “The St. John’s Church Foundation is elevating the site’s history in exciting ways as it comes upon the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution in 2025 and the 250th anniversary of Patrick Henry’s speech there.”

Smith’s talk will draw from his most recent book, “Death and Rebirth in a Southern City:  Richmond’s Historic Cemeteries,” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020) which explores the history and recovery of the burial grounds in Richmond.

Why are you focusing your lecture on the church’s graveyard?

For the past 10 or so years, I have gotten interested in cemeteries as sources to understand the past and as important subjects in their own right. All that teaching and research interest led to the publication of my book, where I tried to address all of the main cemeteries in Richmond’s long history and explore the state of their preservation and their public engagement over the years. The first chapter opens with St. John’s churchyard, the oldest surviving cemetery in town.

I am on the board of the St. John’s Church Foundation, and they thought it would be helpful to offer a lecture on the history of the churchyard itself. A lot of the programming from the foundation relates to Patrick Henry and his speech at the Second Virginia Convention in 1775, and the education and tours focus on that event. There is more to that historic site than just Patrick Henry’s speech. We can understand that speech better by understanding the setting in which he gave it, where liberty and death mingled in interesting ways.

Talk about your research into the cemeteries.

I used historic maps, historic photographs and older publications that recorded a lot of the inscriptions on the stones that have worn away over time, and the surviving stones in the yard. The physical site is essential for understanding the site’s history and what we can learn from it.

Beyond the artifacts and landscape, the church has a set of archives where they keep old church records, and they have also been undertaking a study of the churchyard. One of the parishioners wrote a booklet history of the churchyard. I relied on the church files and the members of that church archive group to help me understand the records and what they knew about it.

I also did research at Library of Virginia and Virginia Museum of History & Culture, where they have old vestry books and city records. At VMHC, I also studied records of the foundation that was set up in the 1930s to preserve and protect the church as a historic site. Lastly, I talked with a lot of people engaged at the church – tour guides, staff of the foundation and current members of the church.

That site is not only important because of the 1775 Patrick Henry speech, but it is also one of the oldest buildings in Richmond, dating back to 1741. The earliest surviving burial marker dates to 1751. It shows how that early American colony operated before the American Revolution in a profound way.

What did you find that surprised you?

First, the most honored burials took place underneath the physical church itself. We know that a lot of European churches reserved places under the aisles, pews and even the sanctuary. It was interesting to see how that practice was replicated here at a colonial outpost like Richmond.

One of the church’s beloved early ministers, John Buchanan, was buried in the 1820s near the altar underneath the floorboards of the church. That was a surprise. Most people today would see walking over or sitting over someone’s grave to be a little creepy or not very honorable. But the closer into the sanctuary or altar space was seen as most honorary for earlier generations.

The other thing that struck me is the layout of the yard. When visitors first visit, things look random – the graves are not lined up in neat even rows the way we expect graveyards to be today. But underneath what looks like disorder or chaos or randomness, there is a beautiful pattern in which almost every stone is faced due east toward the rising sun. The stones within the yard are not lined up with the street. It shows a religious, spiritual idea about the rising sun or facing toward Jesus’ homeland  and the site of his looked-for return. Interesting to see that for older generations what might have seemed as disorganization, there was one element that was tightly organized and quite meaningful.

The other thing essential to the encounter is the fact that the earliest church vestry records refer to the site as being built on the hill called Indian Town. We know there were Powhatan settlements in the area. There have been Indigenous artifacts found in the churchyard. We know there was Native activity on the site.

We have to acknowledge that and think about what it means to have that layering of Native history displaced by the colonial history of the English when they came in. When you think of sacred ground and what is sacred and celebrated today as a National Historic Landmark – if that is the only story we tell, we are missing a big chunk of that. Jamestown and Henricus Historical Park have done more in recent years to acknowledge those dynamics and Native presence. I think there is more to do at places like St. John’s to make that visible.