BXP Photos + Words

Tragedy and possiblity in a single frame

We had canceled today's work day at East End because there was rain in the forecast. Richmond got some, but not much. Just drizzle. So Erin and I went out. First, we hauled a plastic tub and a trash bag filled with empty malt liquor and beer bottles—a gift from anonymous, shameless party animals—out of the brush-only dumpster. Mark and Karen stopped by, gathered the bottles, and after a play session with Willow and Teacake, took them home to be recycled.

When we finished, Erin migrated toward an area in the old section of the cemetery that she had started clearing a couple of years ago. She gloved up and set to work.

I stopped to look at temporary—or courtesy—markers. There are hundreds, of various types in varied states. Many of the aluminum ones, most under 50 years old, are in decent shape. Everything is metal, even the raised letters, so they tend to last, unless some grinds them up with a lawn mower (as has happened at neighboring Evergreen).

Older markers are metal frames with glass windows. Under the glass, a slip of paper with the deceased's name, date of death, the name of the funeral home, maybe more, if they could fit it. A precious few of these slips are still legible. Most are not. Water and time have dissolved them. Some of these empty frames were planted in plots that also have headstones. Perhaps the stone was set and the courtesy marker not removed. We can assume, but can't know. Often, there's just the busted metal frame.

These, to me, are among the most tangible, powerful reminders that much of this community's history has been destroyed, allowed to disintegrate and disappear. This is tragic, largely because it did not have to be so. But this is the afterlife of Jim Crow, as Erin puts it.

But there is something else. In this same moment, in this same frame, I see possibility. Like the headstones, many of the metal markers had been enmeshed in tangles of greenbrier, English ivy, and Virginia creeper or covered in soil from decades of erosion. We see the markers because we, the volunteers, have revealed them; the ground in which they were planted has been cleared. We may never learn who that marker was placed for, but we can still honor that nameless person by continuing to reclaim the land from nature and a community's stories from obscurity. —BP

7 April 2018