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Death and Rebirth in a Southern City

'Death and Rebirth in a Southern City' cover image

Death and Rebirth in a Southern City

Richmond's Historic Cemeteries

This exploration of Richmond's burial landscape over the past 300 years reveals in illuminating detail how racism and the color line have consistently shaped death, burial, and remembrance in this storied Southern capital.

Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy, holds one of the most dramatic landscapes of death in the nation. Its burial grounds show the sweep of Southern history on an epic scale, from the earliest English encounters with the Powhatan at the falls of the James River through slavery, the Civil War, and the long reckoning that followed. And while the region's deathways and burial practices have developed in surprising directions over these centuries, one element has remained stubbornly the same: the color line. But something different is happening now. The latest phase of this history points to a quiet revolution taking place in Virginia and beyond. Where white leaders long bolstered their heritage and authority with a disregard for the graves of the disenfranchised, today activist groups have stepped forward to reorganize and reclaim the commemorative landscape for the remains of people of color and religious minorities.

In Death and Rebirth in a Southern City, Ryan K. Smith explores more than a dozen of Richmond's most historically and culturally significant cemeteries. He traces the disparities between those grounds which have been well-maintained, preserving the legacies of privileged whites, and those that have been worn away, dug up, and built over, erasing the memories of African Americans and indigenous tribes. Drawing on extensive oral histories and archival research, Smith unearths the heritage of these marginalized communities and explains what the city must do to conserve these gravesites and bring racial equity to these arenas for public memory. He also shows how the ongoing recovery efforts point to a redefinition of Confederate memory and the possibility of a rebirthed community in the symbolic center of the South.

The book encompasses, among others, St. John's colonial churchyard; African burial grounds in Shockoe Bottom and on Shockoe Hill; Hebrew Cemetery; Hollywood Cemetery, with its 18,000 Confederate dead; Richmond National Cemetery; and Evergreen Cemetery, home to tens of thousands of black burials from the Jim Crow era. Smith's rich analysis of the surviving grounds documents many of these sites for the first time and is enhanced by an accompanying website, www.richmondcemeteries.org. A brilliant example of public history, Death and Rebirth in a Southern City reveals how cemeteries can frame changes in politics and society across time.