‘Death and Rebirth’: VCU history professor’s new book reveals the history of Richmond’s cemeteries

“Cemeteries participate in the rawest political drives… . They teach us about power and resistance as much as about spiritual beliefs.”

In “Death and Rebirth in a Southern City," VCU's Ryan Smith explores more than 300 years of ...
In “Death and Rebirth in a Southern City," VCU's Ryan Smith explores more than 300 years of burial grounds in Richmond. (Image from “Death and Rebirth in a Southern City")

In a new book, “Death and Rebirth in a Southern City: Richmond’s Historic Cemeteries,” Virginia Commonwealth University history professor Ryan K. Smith, Ph.D., explores more than 300 years of burial grounds in Richmond, illustrating how racism and the color line have consistently shaped death, burial and remembrance in Virginia’s capital.

The book, published by Johns Hopkins University Press, focuses on more than a dozen of Richmond’s most historically and culturally significant cemeteries, including St. John’s colonial churchyard; African burial grounds in Shockoe Bottom and on Shockoe Hill; Hebrew Cemetery; Hollywood Cemetery, home to 18,000 Confederate dead; Richmond National Cemetery; and Evergreen Cemetery, the resting place of tens of thousands of Black residents who died in the Jim Crow era.

Man stands in cemetery.
Ryan Smith at the Barton Heights Cemeteries, the site of several contiguous African American burial grounds. (Douglas Winiarski)

Smith, a professor in the Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences, provides analysis looking back over centuries of Richmond’s burial landscape, while also showing how ongoing recovery efforts point to a redefinition of Confederate memory and the possibility of a rebirthed community in the symbolic center of the South. The book’s accompanying website, Richmond Cemeteries, features research and podcasts by Smith’s undergraduate students from the past several years.

Smith discussed “Death and Rebirth” with VCU News, explaining why Richmond’s cemeteries are an excellent lens to understand the complicated history of the city and the nation.

What originally inspired you to study historic cemeteries? What is it about Richmond’s cemeteries that intrigues you?

Like many people, I have been fascinated by cemeteries for a long time, but it took me awhile to work up to writing about them. It is a big responsibility to try and describe the resting places of people’s loved ones, especially when many of those places themselves have also faced trauma. But my specific push to write this history came from a colleague at the University of Richmond — Douglas Winiarski — who suggested that we co-teach a course on the history of Richmond’s burial grounds. That was 10 years ago. Once we began touring the sites with the students and engaging with caretakers and preservationists, I was hooked. There’s just so much to see at the grounds, from the colonial origins of the city through slavery, revolution, immigration, war and emancipation, all the way up to today’s headlines. People from all over care a lot about these places.   

Do Richmond’s cemeteries help tell a larger story about the city and the South?

They do. The main story they tell is that Southern lives are interrelated. So many previous studies have followed a tendency to segregate by focusing on one cemetery or one social group’s burial practices. But I don’t think we can understand a place like Hollywood Cemetery, where the city’s white elites are buried, without understanding the connections its art and its families have to the African American burials at Evergreen Cemetery, for example, or to the Union graves at Richmond National Cemetery. Visitors who tour only one of those sites are missing the full picture. And that picture is now being pieced back together.

How would you describe the book’s central argument?

The central argument takes its cue from the landscape itself. There, we see that burial ground patterns have changed a lot over time, from the rather unorganized colonial-era churchyard burials to the grid-like Shockoe Hill Cemetery after the American Revolution and beyond. But at the same time, each stage of those changes reinforced racial exclusion, or the marginalization of Native Americans, Africans and others. Successive groups of arrivals, such as Jews and Roman Catholics, accommodated those patterns. Yet we might be seeing something different today, as long-neglected graveyards are reentering public consciousness and drawing a variety of new efforts toward reclamation. In this way, they may be fostering a “rebirth,” here and nationally.   

What can we learn from a deeper understanding of Richmond’s cemeteries?

Cemeteries interest so many people because they stand at several borders, such as that between life and death, or past and future. It is humbling to stand in front of a gravestone. At the same time, cemeteries participate in the rawest political drives, conferring legitimacy on some while denying it to others. They teach us about power and resistance as much as about spiritual beliefs. We need to understand why and how some burials have been erased and what that means for us today.

How have Richmond’s cemeteries evolved over the years?

The trick in this question, and for the book generally, is to show how much has changed, even at a single site. We tend to assume that Hollywood Cemetery has always looked and drawn support one way, while others went different routes. But Hollywood’s leaders had to fight for its survival at several points. And other sites, such as the Franklin Street Burying Ground, show even more dramatic transformations. As the first Jewish burial ground in the state, it went from being a primary resource for its community to an afterthought upon its replacement, and then to a revived and celebrated place of memory, and now to a residential building’s courtyard. The African Burial Ground in Shockoe Bottom shows even more radical changes. It is hard for any site in a city whose history is as dramatic as that of Richmond’s to stay the same. And all of the cemeteries are drawing more visitors and more engagement.

What sort of research did this book entail?

Historians love research, and this project went deep with hundreds of oral history interviews, hours and hours in area archives, and lots of time looking, measuring and photographing out in the field. Much of the work involved piecing together the story of sites whose history had never been fully told. The book also benefited from some fantastic student research. Undergraduates regularly worked alongside me in the classroom and in the field and opened exciting lines of questions. The students’ work is cited throughout the book, and it can be seen at the accompanying website, www.richmondcemeteries.org.

Were you surprised by anything you found while researching this book? Or do you think readers will be surprised by anything you found?

Readers will be surprised to learn how lively the region’s cemeteries are. We tend to think of them as very quiet places, but there is just so much happening in and around them. I have seen protests, prayers, meals, musicians, theatrical productions, dance performances, artifact discoveries and technological tools such as drones and radar animate the grounds.

I am surprised by how well we can get to know a community through its burial landscape alone. It is not a neutral landscape, and it will continue to offer us lessons. Learning about death can be oddly inspiring.

Subscribe to VCU News

Subscribe to the VCU News newsletter at newsletter.vcu.edu and receive a selection of stories, videos, photos, news clips and event listings in your inbox every Monday and Thursday.