Henry Lee Tunstall was two months old when he died of “acute bronchitis, apparently” in Richmond. This was what was written on his death certificate in 1913. His family name is misspelled as “Thompson” on that document. Whoever completed that form also misheard Henry Lee’s father’s name. “Goldman” is how the coroner recorded it; it is Golden. Fortunately, Henry Lee’s mother’s name is correct: Mary Palmer. She was the eighth of my great-grandparents’ twelve children. Erin found this document while tracking down Palmer family obituaries for one of my cousins, Grover. She had searched for Golden in online databases and newspapers before but never found him.
Another document we found years ago — a 1944 “certificate of title” to land in Magruder, Virginia, that the US government has taken from “the heirs of Julia Palmer,” my great-grandmother — reveals a few more facts. It tells us that Mary died intestate about 1919, “leaving an estate which was valued at less than $500.” The document lists two “survivors” — husband Golden, “from whom she was separated” and who “disappeared over 20 years ago and has not been heard of since that time”; and their son, William, whose whereabouts were unknown. We know nothing more about Mary, who died of tuberculosis. The men we search for have thin paper trails; most often, women like Mary have no trail at all.
But there’s more.
Henry Lee was laid to rest at East End Cemetery in Henrico County.
Henry Lee is the first direct connection we’ve found between the Palmer family—me—and East End, where we have worked as volunteers for nearly six years. In one sense, this is a very small finding in a world of dead ends. Tens of thousands of black people were buried in East End and Evergreen from the late 19th century into the 20th century. Probably hundreds in 1913 alone. If you died black in Richmond, you were likely to wind up in one of these neighboring cemeteries. Folks from Grove, my dad Eddie’s old York County community, the Bells, are buried up front at East End, just yards from the access road. Same for William I. Johnson, a man whose life story closely tracks Mat Palmer’s for several decades. The six-and one-quarter page transcript of Johnson’s 1937 interview with a Works Progress Administration oral historian, which we found while searching for records and evidence of Mat himself, provides the only apparently firsthand account we have from a man who escaped slavery in Goochland County, served in the US Army during the Civil War, and moved to Richmond to begin a life in freedom.
Erin’s discovery of Henry Lee also feels providential. We had no link to the cemetery when we started to work there and to learn its stories. Over time, we’ve both made a deep connection, through our restoration work, and through discoveries such as these during hours, days, years of research. This is a small fragment, to be sure, but a pivotal one that joins these two paths we’ve been following since coming to Virginia. “I have raised all of my children, educated them, then college—those who wanted it. I’ve helped grandchildren and now I help educate great-grandchildren. The Lord is just blessing me, that’s all.” Johnson, a successful building contractor, died the following year at 98 years old.