Students assist local volunteer in cleaning historic Richmond cemetery

RICHMOND, Va (WRIC)  John Shuck has a unique way to pass the time; he cleans old and forgotten cemeteries. Shuck is the Volunteer Coordinator for the East End Cemetery Clean Up Project.

“During the early part of the 1900’s, this was the place to be buried if you were African American, this cemetery,” he said. “There’s a satisfaction to it, uncovering these gravestones, seeing this area go from overgrown brush to nicely open that actually looks like a cemetery.”

The local history buff said it’s been more than a dozen years since someone was buried in the graveyard that seems to be plagued with overgrown brush, vandalism and by people who dump their trash on the property.  Shuck recruits different individuals and groups to help him clean. On Wednesday, a group of ninth graders from Saint Christopher’s School helped with the arduous task.

“It’s tough, it’s a lot of work, but it’s fun, not what we usually do in the school day,” said 9th grader Alexander Levengood. Cleaning up the project is part of the students’ curriculum.

Cleaning up the project is part of the students’ curriculum.

“Well I think it’s important to everybody, but for these kids who are 14 and 15 years old to realize the world is so much bigger than our small community,” said English and History teacher John Butler.

Before the students got to work after their lunch break, Shuck gave them a brief history lesson on who is buried in the cemetery.

From William Custalow, “he ran a hotel, a saloon restaurant, a very respected place in downtown Richmond. When he died, they thought he was the wealthiest Black businessman in Richmond,” to a famous post-war educator, “one of the people buried here is Rosa Dixon Bowser she was one of the early Black educators after Emancipation,” to a prominent physician, who was also a president of a bank.

The cemetery is privately owned and Shuck said right now it is managed by a board of one member who is in his late 80’s. He said typically in situations like this cemeteries end up in limbo because no agency or municipality wants to take on the financial burden of the project.

In the meantime, one student acknowledged cleaning up the cemetery is a hands-on history lesson.

“My grandfather takes me to lots of old cemeteries to see some of the heroes of the past, so when I go to cemeteries I always look at the graves to look at who those people might have been,” said student Joe Beck.

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