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VCU, UR Team up to Serve at East End Cemetery

On Sept. 9, more than 20 VCU ASPiRE and University of Richmond students joined together to kick-off another year’s service with the East End Cemetery, a historic 16-acre African American cemetery in the east end of Henrico county.

Since 2013, ASPiRE students have been engaged with the project, going out several times a month to clear ivy and weeds, haul trees, remove trash and uncover gravestones. Created in 1897, the cemetery has not been maintained and has been used as an illegal dumping ground. An estimated 13,000 graves are overgrown with brush and ivy.

“We’re helping to address the damage inflicted for generations on the African American communities that make up our region,” said Ryan Smith, professor in the VCU Dept. of History and ASPiRE Faculty Fellow working with the program. “This initiative demonstrates how students can apply skills learned in courses to real-world problems, offering a targeted point of engagement beyond campus where we can watch the results of new relationships and encounters unfold. It also offers a personal challenge to our own abilities and views of the world.”

Smith said new this year is a more coordinated and collaborative effort among many groups, including students in sociology, history, religious studies, biology and classics/archaeology, along with those serving through ASPiRE and UR’s Bonner Center for Civic Engagement. In addition to the manual labor of clearing graves, Smith said students will work with the larger team to apply analytical and skills-based engagement to forge bonds with community members and descendants, perform research at the site and build a digital resource for the public.

"This cemetery is a part of Richmond's history," said John Shuck, the volunteer coordinator for the clean-up. "Families like to come and visit the graves of loved ones, but for most relatives, that has been impossible for many years. It can be very satisfying to uncover and clean off a gravestone that has not seen the light of day for 40 or 50 years.”

For more information or to volunteer at East End Cemetery, visit eastendcemetery.wordpress.com.