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TV series "Mercy Street" actor L. Scott Caldwell helped clear historic Evergreen Cemetery of debris and overgrowth on May 7. The show is currently filming its second season on location in Virginia, including scenes in Richmond. (Photo by Erik Heinila)
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Caldwell and others work to clear debris from Evergreen, which was chartered in 1891 and is the final resting place of some of Richmond's most influential blacks of the 19th and 20th centuries. (Photo by Erik Heinila)
America's first female bank president Maggie Walker, outspoken newspaper editor John Mitchell Jr. and Jackson Ward businessman and funeral home owner A.D. Price are among Richmond's influential black leaders who rest in Evergreen Cemetery. Yet the space is overgrown and neglected, and must rely on volunteers to keep it clear of weeds and help identify the people lying in its 5,000 grave plots. With the help of the Henrico County Historical Society, an actor in one of television's most popular historical dramas spent time cleaning up the cemetery Saturday and searching for the remains of a woman with a unique story.
Officially chartered in 1891, Evergreen Cemetery sprawls over 60 acres in Richmond's East End, at the meeting points of Stony Run Road and East Richmond Road. Sadly, it is just one of several neglected cemeteries where Richmond's blacks made their final resting place after the Civil War. From "Built By Blacks" by Selden Richardson:
"Evergreen Cemetery adjoins the East End Cemetery on Stony Run and was created in 1891. ... it was planned to be the African American equivalent of Richmond's high-style Hollywood Cemetery for whites. ...The entrance to Evergreen Cemetery does not suggest its past glories as the black Hollywood ... Evergreen, which must have been a showplace of funerary architecture and design at the time of its inception, has been obscured over time by vandals and nature."
L. Scott Caldwell plays a servant, Belinda Gibson, in the PBS Civil War drama, "Mercy Street." (See photos from the season one set here.) A curious gravestone inscription fueled Caldwell's desire to help clean up Evergreen and clear up a slave's forgotten history.
"Trudging through thick brush and uneven ground, L. Scott was determined to find the grave of a woman named Julia Hoggett," according to a news release about Caldwell's work in Evergreen. The grave's inscription reads:
"In Memory of my Mammy, Julia Hoggett
She was born a slave and a slave she chose to remain.
Slave to duty, a slave to love.
Few people of any race or condition of life have lived so unselfishly,
which is the same as saying so nobly. – LaMotte Blakely"
The tombstone struck a chord with Caldwell, a Chicago native who made her Broadway debut in the Tony-nominated play, "Home." Like the woman whose overgrown grave Caldwell sought out in Evergreen Cemetery, "Mercy Street" character Belinda, a former slave, also chooses to stay with the Greens, the family who had enslaved her. Of her character, Caldwell says on the Mercy Street website, “With Belinda and the Greens, she obviously chooses to stay. When she is told that she's free, she makes the choice to stay with this family. The alternate choice to staying would be leaving, going elsewhere and starting a life elsewhere, but once the word free was put before her and many others, it's like, well, what do I do now?”
Caldwell's clean-up effort was coordinated by the Henrico County Historical Society, according to the release.
To learn more about Evergreen Cemetery and how you can volunteer, please see here. The next scheduled work day is May 22, according to its website.