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At community gathering, UR and VCU to unveil digital map of East End Cemetery

Susan Bodnar-Deren, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Sociology in the College of H...
Susan Bodnar-Deren, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Sociology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, looks on during a VCU student clean-up of East End Cemetery in 2016.

Over the past year, students and faculty from Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond, in collaboration with the Friends of East End Cemetery, have been working to clean up and conduct research at Richmond’s East End Cemetery, a long-neglected and overgrown burial site of thousands of African-Americans that dates back to 1897.

The findings of the East End Cemetery Collaboratory will be presented at a community gathering on Friday, April 27, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in the Robinson Theater Community Arts Center at 2903 Q St. The event is free and open to the public.

At the gathering, the team will unveil a digital map plotted with data gathered from thousands of individual gravestones. It will be the first comprehensive map of the cemetery, allowing descendants, community members and researchers to learn more about East End and the people buried there.

The East End Cemetery Collaboratory held a public symposium UR Downtown in December.
The East End Cemetery Collaboratory held a public symposium UR Downtown in December.

“The East End Cemetery Collaboratory is a unique and innovative community-university partnership because it brings the benefits of cross-university and cross-disciplinary collaborations to address a critical need in our community,” said Lynn E. Pelco, Ph.D., associate vice provost of community engagement and director of VCU’s Service-Learning Office.

The East End Cemetery Collaboratory was created by University of Richmond faculty members Elizabeth Baughan, Ph.D., associate professor of classics and archaeology, and Kristine Grayson, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biology. They were joined by UR faculty members Douglas Winiarski, Ph.D., associate professor of religious studies and American studies; Emily Boone, director of biological instruction; and Jory Brinkerhoff, Ph.D., associate professor of biology, along with VCU faculty members Ryan Smith, Ph.D., professor in the Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences, and Susan Bodnar-Deren, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Sociology.

“By working in the community alongside faculty scholars from two different universities and multiple academic disciplines, our VCU service-learning students are learning how researchers in the humanities and sciences can collaborate with each other and with experts in the community to impact critical social needs,” Pelco said.

In addition to the unveiling of the map and the presentation of other student research projects, the community gathering will provide attendees with an opportunity to learn from descendants and area residents.

“The collaboratory is a national model for other community-university partnerships that are working to address the needs of historic African-American cemeteries,” Pelco said. “The collaboratory demonstrates a long-term strategy for building an integrated research, teaching and service partnership that meets a pressing community-identified need.”

At VCU, the 90 students in Smith’s class, HIST 201 The Art of Historical Detection: Richmond Cemeteries, are exploring the history of Virginia and practicing historical methods by engaging with the area’s cemeteries as sources.

“We take field trips to a couple sites, and students produce research podcasts narrating the story behind a particular grave they have chosen,” Smith said.

The most successful podcasts are posted online at www.richmondcemeteries.org.

This type of work always brings out the best in students and faculty since we see how our studies can literally change the landscape.

Several students are working on podcasts about individuals buried at Barton Heights Cemeteries, Evergreen Cemetery and East End Cemetery. The students also have volunteered their time at those cemeteries clearing brush and collecting GPS data for the collaboratory's mapping project.

“I have enjoyed my work with the collaboratory since it has allowed me to see how other faculty, students and institutions are engaging with these important resources in different ways,” Smith said. “This type of work always brings out the best in students and faculty since we see how our studies can literally change the landscape.”

Just as important, he added, the project is allowing VCU and UR students to learn from the community in ways that would be impossible in a typical classroom setting.

“I expect we get experiences here that will last with us throughout our lives,” he said. “And hopefully, the maps our groups are producing will be a key tool for descendants and other friends of the cemeteries.”

Participants in the East End Cemetery Collaboratory include students and faculty from both the University of Richmond and VCU. (Photo by Erin Holloway)
Participants in the East End Cemetery Collaboratory include students and faculty from both the University of Richmond and VCU. (Photo by Erin Holloway)