At East End Cemetery, an African American burial ground dating to 1897, VCU School of Social Work students hear from Brian Palmer, former board president of the Friends of East End. (Contributed photo).

‘Richmond [Re]Visited’ shows social work students racial disparities in life and death

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Where you live in Richmond can be a strong determinant of how long you live — with a notable disparity between traditionally white and African American neighborhoods.

That was just one lesson from “Richmond [Re]Visited 2019: Racism and Public Health,” an annual event at the start of the academic year that explores Richmond’s history and provides context for a variety of issues affecting society today. The event is sponsored by the VCU School of Social Work’s Black Lives Matter Student-Alumni-Faculty Collective.

“As we look at any particular issue where there are disparities, we say, ‘OK, what is the current-day perspective or data?’ and then go back and say, ‘OK, why is it this way? How did we get here?’” said Daryl Fraser, associate professor of teaching in the School of Social Work and one of the founding members of the BLM collective.

On a steamy day in late August, a bus tour of Richmond highlights two key locations of historical significance: the site of the East Marshall Street Well Project on the MCV Campus, where human remains of African descent were found in 1994 after being discarded in the 1800s by the medical school; and the East End Cemetery, an African American burial ground dating to 1897 on Evergreen Road near Henrico County.

A foundational component of Richmond’s racial history is its neighborhoods. Data from the VCU Center on Society and Health show that life expectancy can be as disparate as 20 years more for a traditionally white neighborhood like Westover Hills (83) compared to a traditionally African American neighborhood like Gilpin (63). Basic necessities — proximity to grocery stores with fresh produce or access to covered benches at bus stops — can often be taken for granted in some communities but create major disparities for individuals with limited transportation options and existing health issues.

 “When you really look at that map, you think, OK, people have been pushed to live in certain areas and were not given the resources to live and thrive,” said Fraser, who attributes this division to the well-documented history of redlining, a systemic policy to segregate and marginalize Richmond’s African American population starting in the 1930s.

Current conditions are inextricably linked to these historical causes and are essential for social workers to understand, said M. Alex Wagaman, Ph.D., a social work associate professor and another BLM collective founder.

“The past is very much alive in the present and how that looks in terms of the community here in Richmond,” she said. “The journey here is to go into the past and present and weave those together for a broader, deeper understanding so we can determine how to dismantle racism as part of the public health crisis.

“In our practice as social workers, we think broadly on health and public health and reproductive health to dig in and understand it more deeply,” she said. “You can apply what we’re talking about and learning to any health issue you’re interested in as a social worker — and not just as an individual condition but with health as a public condition. I really think the way a community is built and structured impacts the health and well-being of all people connected to that community. We can point out structural aspects of the community that we don’t usually think about when we think about health.”

Shawn Utsey, Ph.D.
Shawn Utsey, Ph.D., chair of the Department of African American Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, gave the keynote address of “Richmond [Re]Visited 2019: Racism and Public Health.” (Contributed photo).

‘Scientific racism’

Shawn Utsey, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of African American Studies and a professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, points out that biases have historically been a part of the scientific process, particularly the rise of eugenics to help justify the marginalization of blacks and Asians. 

“The connection between psychology and health is obvious, at least from my perspective,” Utsey said. “I think it’s important that we understand how scientific racism is embedded in psychology and perhaps, by extension, social work education and many other disciplines as a consequence of the zeitgeist, the thinking of those early pioneers of psychology and psychiatry.”

Utsey said the origin of racial categorization — Negroid, Caucasoid, Mongoloid — was arbitrary and rooted in historical bias. 

“Someone decides how many races there are. There was no testing done, there was no scientific discussion. Someone decided there were three, right? … Someone said three, and that’s what we’re rockin’ with now, three. And that’s how other things happen in science, too. Someone says, ‘let’s do it this way,’ and that’s what we do.”

Protecting mothers’ health

Nikiya Ellis of Birth in Color RVA, is a doula. She said in Virginia, black women are three times more likely than white women to die in childbirth.

“We trust our providers and that they’ll give us the best care possible and not force us to do something we don’t want to do,” Ellis said of women of color. “But usually the outcome is a C-section surgery, which can lead to hemorrhaging, which can also lead to death.” 

Ellis said the approach of a doula, or a nonmedical companion who can provide support before, during and after birth, is really a throwback to how babies were born before modern medicine dictated a trip to the hospital and an OB-GYN. 

“When a woman is comfortable in her space, nine times out of 10 the birth will go a lot easier. Instinctively, our bodies do what they’re supposed to do. Years ago, when women weren’t having babies in a hospital, women would go to a safe space and have people surrounding them that they felt comfortable with. There would be a birth with no medication.

“But you come into a hospital system, with bright lights, different people, having an extra person in the room you don’t know … it can be fearful; instinctively, our bodies will say, ‘this is not a safe space, this baby is not coming out.’ Forty hours of labor later, you’re going into emergency surgery for a C-section.”

Elizabeth P. Cramer, Ph.D. with VCU students.
Elizabeth P. Cramer, Ph.D., professor at the School of Social Work, and students discussed the East Marshall Street Well Project on the MCV Campus. (Contributed photo).

‘Reclaiming American history’

Another example of disparities are in the cemeteries, said third-year social work Ph.D. student Keith Watts. The well-manicured grounds of Oakwood Cemetery on Nine Mile Road have a dedicated space for Confederate soldiers, and a “perpetual care fund” of state dollars, according to the Richmond Free Press.

Meanwhile, at East End Cemetery, an African American burial ground dating to 1897 on Evergreen Road less than 2 miles away, decades of neglect have left grave markers askew, broken or grown over or by ivy and brush. But this is sacred ground, and Olufemi Baraka Shepsu, an okomfo, or shrine worker in the Akan culture of Ghana, is here to pay tribute by pouring libations. 

“Part of my training is to pay special attention to the ancestors, especially those on this side of the water,” said Shepsu, who earned his master’s degree in social work from VCU. “Our ancestors were brought here in chains and suffered a horrible fate in the bottom of the slave ships. We are here to pay homage to all our ancestors buried here. Many were born into enslavement but survived, moved on and were able to build some very powerful institutions.

The past is very much alive in the present and how that looks in terms of the community here in Richmond. The journey here is to go into the past and present and weave those together for a broader, deeper understanding so we can determine how to dismantle racism as part of the public health crisis.

“My mission is to recover the history and restore and heal the ancestors through all the confusion they had to deal with. I will pour a libation, and we’re going to ask all our ancestors to come and heal our people from the difficult and painful past of these last 400 years.

“I want to be very clear, when we’re talking about the enslavement of African people, which many of our ancestors here survived, those wounds, those open wounds, are the tortures, rapes, castrations, the subsequent system of white supremacy and domination and the whole process of denying of wealth that has been institutionalized for over 400 years. It has impacted in the modern times the mental health, the diabetes, the anxiety, the cancers, all these things that African Americans suffer with from a disproportionate rate. … The whole process of enslavement is the foundationary drive of all these conditions.” 

Shepsu said the key to resolving the health disparities is a restoration of African culture that has been stripped away by slavery and its aftermath.

“For all those Africans brought here on the James River, we say that we hear you, we’ve heard your call and we have answered. We’re going to restore our mental health, we’re going to restore our physical health, we’re going to restore the primacy of the black family, we’re going to restore black people back to the traditional level of greatness.”

Digging into the history

If Shepsu is the spiritual guide to East End’s healing, Brian Palmer represents the keepers of the physical space, a group of volunteers called Friends of East End that has slowly cleared about seven of 16 acres since 2013 on the strength of 9,000 volunteer visits.

Palmer was a New York-based freelance journalist working on a documentary when he first visited East End in 2014, taking an objective view of the location. But his wife was accompanying him with a group of Boy Scouts.

“She got down on the ground with the Boy Scouts and started to clear plots, pulling back English ivy off of burial plots that had been there for 50, 60, 70 years,” he said. She suggested he put down his camera and do the same, and the next weekend he volunteered for the first time.

“It was a visceral thing,” said Palmer, who now lives in Richmond and is a former board president of the Friends of East End. “I was reclaiming American history; yes, also African American history, but American history. I was helping reclaim it one headstone at a time. Each headstone is a text, a text about people who were not historicized.

“As I was volunteering in the first few years, a white couple rolled in after one of our workdays and rolled down the window and said, ‘it’s sad that they can’t take care of this place.’ I thought, ‘they?’ I didn’t have the knowledge or the composure at the time to do what I’d do now. Which is to say, ‘isn’t it a shame that they didn’t have the honor or the dignity to fund this place — and that they would be the white people who engineered Jim Crow. And it was engineered, created.”

Gravestone in the East End Cemetery.
Volunteers with Friends of East End have cleared about seven of 16 acres since 2013 over 9,000 volunteer visits. (Contributed photo).

Palmer can tell you the state code — number 10.1-2211 — that dictates financial support of Confederate cemeteries, a total since 1902 of $9 million in today’s dollars. “And that’s not counting the monuments and other memorials to a false narrative,” he said.

And state support for East End? 

“Zero, no money whatsoever,” he said. “That is the assertive, aggressive, empirically based response that I would give to people. That this was structural violence meted out on this place.” 

Still, Palmer is optimistic. He cites the physical restoration of East End and the reclamation of history, including a headstone dated 1875 uncovered the previous Saturday under six inches of dirt. And he also recounts a personal reclamation of his own roots that first put him on this path. In 2012 he learned his great-grandparents, Matthew and Julia Fox Palmer, were buried at Camp Peary in York County, which now hosts the CIA facility commonly known as “The Farm.”

“There’s something about having that knowledge, learning that my great-grandfather and great-grandmother had escaped slavery,” Palmer said. “That enriched my knowledge of who I was. I know I’m as American as anybody. I’m rooted in this place at Camp Peary. And every headstone we recover here [at East End], we are reclaiming a text. More importantly when you actually look at the headstones, Fourth Baptist Church, the Tobacco Twisters Union, all of this sort of stuff, they are engraved with love. There is nothing tragic about this place. The treatment has been tragic, it has been a travesty. But there is nothing tragic. And we’re building a new community at this place to restore it.”

‘Reproductive justice is everything at once’

In the basement of the Richmond Public Library, a four-person panel pulls no punches on the subject of reproductive justice.

“There are so many things hurting our community, so it’s helping contextualize 400 years of what the city created that is at the root of reproductive justice,” said Kimberly Gomez, a 2016 VCU social work graduate and doula in training who works with Six Points Innovation Center. “Reproductive justice is everything at once. It’s how we protect young people and how we protect the elderly. It’s a cycle to me. It’s endless and forever.”

Chelsea Higgs Wise, a clinical social worker and adjunct in the School of Social Work, said black women are fighting to move up.

“We can bring up those at the bottom of the hierarchy, and those on the bottom are black women. But the women I’m standing next to and am advocating with are black mothers. It’s important to stand next to women doing work in reproductive rights. As social workers, we have to take up as much space as possible to get this right for intersectionality and justice.”

Amanda Pohl, a macro social worker with the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, said, “The work I do is centered around collecting data and making sure we present it in a way that people can understand and [that] tells a story. We’re collecting the right data and in a way that is responsive and with a lot of integrity. We can show the true story of what is happening in Virginia.

“When we go to a maternal mortality review, this is why there is an important underlying racial justice perspective, because this is happening in Virginia. … The way we interact with lawmakers, we make sure we have really good literature and research. … As a social worker, a macro social worker, I feel a really strong calling to make sure that work is done well.” 

For Fraser, the social work professor, it is that kind of forward momentum that is the payoff for Richmond [Re]Visited.

“A few people told me the experience at the cemetery has given them some motivation or a feeling that they want to go and volunteer there. So that is what we intentionally try to do, to give people the history, to give them another way of looking at things for them to understand racism better, and how it impacts our behavior, how it impacts our everyday lives.

“And also, we want people to plug in, so you want people to be engaged in advocacy. I think sometimes people think advocacy is just going to a march or a protest, and there are other ways you can advocate. So I think we accomplished the goal when I’m hearing those anecdotes."