Veteran hopes state funding for historic black cemeteries finds graves of forgotten soldiers


RICHMOND, Va. (Nexstar) — Funding from the Commonwealth is going to restore historic black cemeteries. A veteran hopes it helps find fallen soldiers.

“I’ve lost a number of friends who served with me,” Maurice Hopkins said. “It would be disheartening for me not to be able to find them.”

“There have been other efforts, organized by Ryan Jones and Dennis Estlock, to recognize veterans at Evergreen Cemetery in Richmond. On Saturday, they along with dozens of volunteers placed large American flags at the graves of service members buried there. They’ve been doing this for four years on Memorial Day and Veterans Day.”

The historic black cemetery is the final resting place of pioneering African American businesswoman Maggie Walker.  It opened in the late 1800’s and was at one time the largest black cemetery in the city. Some 20,000 people were buried here, about 200 of them are veterans, according to the caretaker.

“We ought to be able to put a flag on every grave,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins served for three and a half years during the Vietnam War. He tried to enroll in the Air Force Academy but was turned away. At 5 feet and 2 inches tall, Hopkins didn’t make the height requirement. The Richmonder still enlisted, spending time across the country and the world.

Members of Hopkins’ family are buried in the Woodland cemetery. As a child, his parents would take him there.

“It was a day project, as we were cleaning we would have a picnic right down on the ground,” he said.

Many other families did the same, but some moved away. That’s how cemeteries, like Evergreen, became in disrepair and overgrown.

Toppled over gravestones, covered with vines.

“This has lasted so long, for so many years. It’s not that people are neglectful, they just don’t know where to start. Let’s start here,” Hopkins said.

The veteran, now in his 70’s, joined a group of volunteers at the Enrichmond Foundation, which purchased the Evergreen Cemetery a few years ago. It’s part of a new effort to restore the cemetery back to its glory days.

That’s now possible, in part, because of a new law that went into effect in July. HB 284 allows groups, such as Enrichmond, to apply for state money to help with restoration projects. The amount of money allocated is calculated by the number of graves and monuments at each location or the actual total cost of routine maintenance.

“There’s a huge difference from where it was six months ago to today,” Hopkins said. “If we can manage it better we can identify those graves that have been lost.”

According to the caretaker, Ted Maris-Wolf, EnRichmond is working on a design for the restoration. They’ve been meeting with the community to get their input and hope to have a final design for the project next summer.

Hopkins hopes what comes out of all of this work is a new found respect for the men and women who served to protect our nation.

“I’m hopeful that our military personnel will become more important to the citizens of this community. So, they can rally and assist to identify these people so the next year and the next year and the following year, they can put new flags on their grave,” Hopkins said.

Click here to learn more about the legislation aimed at protecting historic grave sites.

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