In the Woods: One man’s journey to reclaim history

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — Buried deep in the woodlands of Henrico County near the Richmond border lays a hidden treasure forgotten by many.

East End Cemetery and Evergreen Cemetery hold the final resting places of many prominent African Americans who played a major role in the desegregation of Richmond. At one time, many years ago, the grounds were said to be “a memorial park fit for the royalty.” But this sacred burial ground, after being left unattended for decades, has been reclaimed by mother nature.

“It needed work, it needed help,” said John Shuck, who cleaned the cemeteries. “It was all overgrown, this hole we are standing in was full of brush and trees when we started.”

Even the final resting place of Maggie Walker lays barely recognizable. Walker was an African-American teacher and businesswoman who was the first female bank president of any race to charter a bank in the United States. Here in Richmond, the Governor’s school bears her name; a fitting tribute, but her own grave site has been left in ruins.

bf62d3c72e7a41fa9ac5f7856655b6fd“There was brush, there were trees, there were weeds, vines, you name it, it was here,” said Shuck.

But along came a man from Iowa with no Richmond ties, John Shuck, who has a love for history and a respect for the dead.

“We don’t know what’s here, so it was interesting to start uncovering and see what we find,” he said.

That was three years ago when he started uncovering more than he thought he ever would.

“In the older part of the cemetery we have found the gravestones for some of the early prominent African Americans in Richmond,” Shuck added.

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Among those is William Custalo, who when he died more than 100 years ago, was thought to be the wealthiest black businessman in Richmond. Also, Rosa Dixon Bowser is buried here. Bowser, whose grave site is cleaned and maintained by her family, was Richmond’s first African American School teacher.

“We’re calling it uncovering history, and we have uncovered a lot here. It feels great to be able to look out here and see these gravestones,” said Shuck.

So now, three years later, several days a week, even under the hot summer sun, temperatures baking, that same man from Iowa comes armed with his rake to continue reclaiming history. There are thought to be more than 13,000 graves here. So far, John and his team of volunteers have uncovered more than 2,100. But just recently their team added a new player.

1b61df52aab24a20bfff548c479e7f45“This space will once again be a place of pride and will be a place for education and reflection,” said Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe.

With that announcement, Virginia’s Governor announced a $400,000 grant to assist with taking back Virginia history.

“But for the work of John and the other volunteers, to be honest with you, it would have been forgotten,” said McAuliffe. “It’s kind of a vindication of what we’ve been doing out here all this time, never would have thought it would have happened.”

Now with a renewed motivation, more volunteers and even some goats have been brought in to help chomp down on vegetation. John, who may be an Iowan in spirit, is now a Virginian at heart. And if you ask him why he ever felt the need to start this journey all those years ago, his answer is simple.

“Something that felt like should be done, and we’re getting it done.”

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