Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond, VA. December 20, 2022. All photos by author.

Enwhatnow?

Brian Palmer

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A Controversial Virginia Nonprofit Collapses, Leaving Questions and Anger

In June 2022, the Richmond Free Press, our city’s African American newspaper, reported that the Enrichmond Foundation, a Virginia nonprofit, “may have collapsed.” Scratch the “may have.” Enrichmond has evaporated without a trace and barely a word. Disappearing along with its board of directors, executive director, and staffers were over $200,000 in donations that Enrichmond had received as fiscal agent for dozens of local nonprofits. This was Enrichmond’s core function: accepting tax-deductible donations for community-based groups that weren’t officially tax exempt, taking a small percentage as an administrative fee, and then passing on the money to these worthy causes. After Enrichmond’s implosion, members of some of these groups formed the Enrichmond Accountability Project (EAP) to try to claw back their money. They have also pleaded their case to the Richmond Police Department, City of Richmond, Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney, and other agencies. So far, there has been no visible progress toward a just resolution.

For a few weeks this summer and into the fall, the Enrichmond accountability drive seemed to have real momentum. It certainly got plenty of press, including ink from Michael Paul Williams, Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. But the story has grown cold. Enrichmond and its friends, once so vocal in its defense, have gone silent. Enrichmond’s lawyers handling the dissolution have also stayed mum. And then they’ve quit. “Our firm does not represent Enrichmond,” Andy Sherrod of the Hirschler law firm told me in late December. His firm had been hired to replace the first lawyer who in June had stepped in to close down the nonprofit.

Recently, EAP started working with an advocate from the nonprofit sector to secure pro bono legal assistance. “It seems like litigation may be the only option, since the city council is no longer willing or able to take responsibility,” said Mac Wood of EAP and Friends of Pump House, a former Enrichmond community partner. “I would love to settle outside of court, but the silence from Enrichmond’s board and the City of Richmond is leaving us with few options,” Wood said.

Just as Enrichmond ditched its community partners, it abandoned East End and Evergreen, historic Black cemeteries the nonprofit had taken over with heavy backing from the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF), a state-chartered agency. In 2016, to sell the cemetery deal to the public, VOF effectively pulled a bait-and-switch. In face-to-face conversations with the volunteers doing the work of reclamation at East End and Evergreen — I was one of them — VOF officials raised the possibility of providing $400,000 in funding for the restoration of the burial grounds. Simultaneously, VOF was working behind closed doors to deliver these fragile sites into the hands of its favored entity — Enrichmond, which until then had played no discernible role in the work at either cemetery.

Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond, VA. December 17, 2022.

Enrichmond had few relevant credentials to suggest that it could restore and manage 76 long-abused acres of sacred ground, where tens of thousands of African Americans were laid to rest from the late 19th to early 21st century. It had no track record of cemetery administration or historic preservation. Its experience was in fiscal agency and parks (and bacon festivals) — it was spun off from the City of Richmond’s parks and rec department in the 1990s to become a freestanding nonprofit. Furthermore, Enrichmond had negligible capacity and resources — a staff of three and just over $35,000 in revenue minus expenses, according to its 2016 IRS filing. Weirdly, the state didn’t require Enrichmond to submit preservation plans or environmental impact studies — or any proof it was up to the job — before pledging taxpayer dollars and outright ownership to a hollow entity.

“In hindsight, this scenario seems utterly predictable,” Ryan K. Smith, history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of Death and Rebirth in a Southern City, wrote on his Richmond Cemeteries website about Enrichmond’s collapse. “The Enrichmond Foundation never demonstrated that it had the capacity for the task or an ability to build trust with its partners in the work.”

Once Enrichmond was empowered by the state, it evicted the two volunteer efforts that were successfully, gradually, reclaiming the cemeteries from nature, neglect, and dumping. The Evergreen group no longer works at the cemetery, but the Friends of East End, of which I’m a founding member, has cautiously returned. We’ve held a number of impromptu cleanup days over the past few months, but we’re holding off on a full-fledged comeback until the legal status of the cemeteries becomes clearer.

Enrichmond’s officers must be held to account for the disaster they created. Moreover, they must be called out of hiding to help fix it. But the buck doesn’t stop with them. The failure of Enrichmond is a collective failure. If we don’t get to the root of this complex problem, which was authored by many hands, we won’t find viable solutions, at the cemeteries or in any of the places where Enrichmond left its lamentable mark.

Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond, VA. December 17, 2022.

Before its collapse, Enrichmond had plenty of friends in high places who happily showered it with cash. Private entities and nonprofits shoveled hundreds of thousands of dollars at Enrichmond for its undertakings at East End and Evergreen. Dominion Energy gave the nonprofit $100,000 in 2018 and another $25,000 in 2019. Preservation Virginia gave Enrichmond a bridge loan of more than $100,000 to buy Evergreen in 2017, according to two sources at that nonprofit. The Community Foundation gave Enrichmond $28,000 in 2019 for “landscaping- and horticulture-based job skills training for Richmond residents working to reclaim Evergreen, East End, and Paupers Cemeteries.” Also in 2019, the National Trust for Historic Preservation awarded Enrichmond $75,000 to restore the section of Evergreen around Maggie L. Walker’s burial plot. In 2021, PayPal signed a deal with Enrichmond to buy carbon credits for the cemeteries, which would have earned it about $40,000 a year, according to City Forest Credits, the nonprofit that drafted the plan. These may be relatively small amounts, but they add up to real money — and they were just the beginning.

Government agencies — local, state, and federal — funneled over a million taxpayer dollars to Enrichmond over the past few years.

They propped up the nonprofit in spite of its deep inadequacies and abject failures across the board, from the promised but never delivered “Urban Apple Orchard” at Chimborazo Park to the now moribund 17th Street Market.

For years, the City of Richmond gave Enrichmond a chunk of nondepartmental funding — $75,000 annually for fiscal years 2018, 2020, and 2021, and $125,000 in 2019. Jon Baliles, a former Richmond city council member and mayoral candidate, hammered Mayor Levar Stoney recently in his Substack newsletter RVA 5x5 for supporting Enrichmond in the past and for his silence now. Baliles noted that the city didn’t award Enrichmond its usual bundle of funding for fiscal year 2022 (or for FY 2023). But he missed the significance of that step. Defunding Enrichmond was a big deal for those of us who had pleaded with government officials to investigate the nonprofit’s poor cemetery stewardship, community-alienating behavior, and questionable spending of public money. Stoney deserves some credit as the first government official to make any visible moves to rein in Enrichmond.

By the same token, Enrichmond’s more powerful enablers in government deserve much more scrutiny than they’ve gotten. Enrichmond benefited mightily from the support, passive and active, of two former governors, the last attorney general, a U.S. senator, and so many others — all Democrats. It was also aided and abetted by folks like state delegate Delores McQuinn. Baliles reminds us that she sponsored the Historical African American Cemeteries and Graves bill in 2017. That law now provides small amounts of funding to groups doing reclamation work at these burial grounds. (Confederate cemeteries had been receiving such state largesse for about a century.) McQuinn deserves points for this. But just a year later, she introduced a tweak to the law that allows cemetery owners, who may or may not have played any role in cleanup efforts at their own cemeteries, to apply for the funds. Combined with rules set by the state’s Department of Historic Resources (DHR), the new language allows cemetery owners like Enrichmond to veto any qualified group’s application for the funding, and then to take the cash itself. Which Enrichmond did at East End. Combined with funding it got for Evergreen Cemetery, this put another $34,875 a year into Enrichmond’s coffers. Not a heap of cash, but Enrichmond got that money for three years straight, according to records from DHR.

And where did it go? At East End, which the Friends had largely cleared by 2020 when Enrichmond took over (it had acquired the cemetery in 2019), Enrichmond brought in commercial landscapers to do occasional blitzkrieg crisis mowing that destroyed fragile metal markers and damaged gravestones. At Evergreen, Enrichmond’s intermittent volunteer efforts and single caretaker (for both East End and Evergreen) could barely keep up with the seasonal growth in sections of the cemetery that had already been cleared. They could not, however, make a lasting dent in the dense overgrowth across the majority of the 60-acre site.

Delegate McQuinn went even further into Enrichmond’s tank by appearing in one of its PR videos, in which she and others pumped up the failing nonprofit and badmouthed those of us who had actually had our hands in the dirt for years at East End and Evergreen. Our transgression: we had the temerity to criticize an apparently sacred — now dead — cow.

Perhaps more than any other state agency, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation merits an especially close look in the wake of Enrichmond’s flameout. Not only did VOF help engineer Enrichmond’s secret takeover of Black cemeteries through a holding company, Parity LLC; VOF gave it hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars with minimal transparency. Enrichmond/Parity scored the $400,000 award for conservation easements and administrative tasks. And at least on paper — actually, in Henrico County and City of Richmond databases — as of today Parity, “c/o Enrichmond Foundation,” still owns East End and Evergreen. Enrichmond’s executive director, John Sydnor, was Parity’s only “sole member-manager.” It’s not clear if that ownership arrangement has changed.

Certification of ownership submitted by Parity LLC to Virginia Outdoors Foundation. Obtained by FOIA.

VOF pledged $150,000 to Parity in 2021 to buy private land adjacent to East End Cemetery to help Sydnor consolidate Enrichmond/Parity’s holdings into a 100-acre parcel, a plan he floated in my presence at an April 2017 meeting with Delegate McQuinn and VOF officials.

Forty Black citizens, among them descendants of people interred at East End and Evergreen, sent a letter to then Governor Ralph Northam and other officials to oppose the $150,000 grant along with proposed agreements between Enrichmond and the City of Richmond to get special access to city-owned historic Black burial grounds, also adjacent to East End and Evergreen. This latter move, which failed, seems to have been yet another step in Enrichmond’s drive to create its own little empire of African American cemeteries. In November 2019, Enrichmond purchased Forest View Cemetery in Westover Hills, which “neighborhood lore” says is a “slave cemetery,” for roughly $7,000.

In March 2022, just months before Enrichmond collapsed, VOF proposed yet another grant to the organization for “descendant and community engagement” to drum up support for a two-year cemetery district feasibility study. The price tag: $150,000, with $35,000 going to VCU’s Center for Urban and Regional Analysis (CURA) and $115,000 to Enrichmond. It didn’t matter that Enrichmond had shunned and dodged genuine community engagement for years. In fact, rather than engage directly with grassroots groups, Enrichmond created — or tried to create — a series of advisory bodies that had no power to effectively challenge its decisions. Most recently, Enrichmond tried to supplant the Descendants Council of Greater Richmond Virginia. That group formed in 2021 after Enrichmond mishandled human remains that had become exposed at East End. In response, Enrichmond created its “Family Council,” which amounted to little more than a series of Zoom calls during which people on Enrichmond’s payroll tried (unsuccessfully) to get whoever showed up to “vote” on important matters. One of these was the proper treatment of those remains, which are now stored at DHR. VOF shelved the $115,000 engagement grant after numerous citizens petitioned its board of trustees. The project has been “tabled indefinitely,” a VOF official told us on a May 26, 2022, Zoom call.

Enrichmond’s behavior toward the community was so deeply problematic that three scholars, two of whom had been “contracted to assist the EnRichmond Foundation with [its] community engagement strategy,” wrote an academic paper about their experience. The title itself is telling: The Structural Challenge of Power and Whiteness in Planning: Evidence From Historic Black Cemetery Restoration.

Their work revealed “three main tensions that limited the potential of this restoration planning process to facilitate Black power over Black sacred places,” Meghan Z. Gough, Kathryn Howell, and Hannah Cameron write. “First, the restoration planning process lacked transparency, a tension that was compounded by existing distrust and fear of an exclusive planning process. Second, the framing of the planning process was not approached with a community-rooted perspective, but instead as a traditional park planning project absent of cultural or community context. Finally, instead of allowing descendant communities and other stakeholders who had more experience with the cemeteries to help lead the planning process, the organization dug in its heels and resisted power-sharing partnerships.” [Emphasis added.]

We’d been telling VOF this long before this paper came out in September 2022, yet it continued to throw good money after bad. Earlier this year as Enrichmond was melting down, VOF gave the foundering nonprofit another $20,000 “stewardship grant,” we learned in an email from a VOF official. And VOF may still be propping up Enrichmond — or what’s left of it. An Enrichmond board member told CBS 6 in July 2022 that VOF was working with him, one of the authors of this fiasco, to resuscitate the cleanup effort at Evergreen. There is little evidence of this on the ground, however.

The sweetheart treatment didn’t stop at the state level. A federal agency, AmeriCorps, with its state partner, the Virginia Service Commission, also funded and supported Enrichmond. They paid for a staffer dedicated to the cemetery effort and fielded several teams in Enrichmond’s haphazard cleanup efforts. From August 2021 to February 2022 alone, they gave Enrichmond around $100,000. That’s on top of the more than $200,000 VISTA grant Enrichmond got in 2018.

A 2022 FOIA revealed that Enrichmond submitted an audit of its operations to AmeriCorps. The agency will not release it, however, citing privacy concerns. “When Enrichmond submitted the financial audit statement to AmeriCorps, the agency assured it that the financial audit statement would not be disclosed to entities outside of AmeriCorps without Enrichmond’s prior written permission,” the FOIA officer wrote. Now that Enrichmond no longer exists, perhaps AmeriCorps will release the audit in the interest of fairness and justice.

Enrichmond used its connection to the feds to hype its work. Social media posts highlighted AmeriCorps volunteers “documenting the headstones that they are uncovering here at Evergreen Cemetery!” That data would go into a database that Enrichmond said it was creating for both Evergreen and East End. It’s not terribly surprising that this undertaking, which used taxpayer-funded labor, appears to have gone up in smoke, too.

Enrichmond Instagram post. November 29, 2017. As of this writing, its IG account is still live but the organization’s websites are not.

“All digital repositories were lost (as far as I know),” the consultant Enrichmond hired to lead the project wrote on her blog. “Files, electronics, and historic documents stored in the company office are in the hands of some unknown person. Everything that people had been working on since 2017, vanished.”

Enrichmond’s database project was misbegotten from the jump; its data collection endeavor at East End was a waste of taxpayer money because that work was already being done and posted. For years the Friends of East End had been collecting headstone data at the cemetery and making it public immediately on Find A Grave. In 2017, the Friends started working with the University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University to create a digital map and archive for East End. When Enrichmond’s executive director learned of the mapping project, he demanded a piece of it. “They gave us a link,” Sydnor told Richmond Magazine, “but they didn’t give us the whole thing.” No, we didn’t, because Enrichmond had done none of the work and in fact continually tried to hinder — or take credit for — ours.

East End Cemetery, Henrico County, VA. December 18, 2022

“We’ve had full-blown audits on all of our financials over the last four years,” Sydnor told participants in a December 2021 “Family Council” Zoom call. “All of our financials are available in GuideStar, including the audits,” he asserted. “They are freely available and downloadable for anybody.” As we watched and listened to him, several of us tried to access these “audits.” There were no such documents available on GuideStar, just Enrichmond’s not-very-recent Form 990, a document the IRS requires all 501(c)(3)’s to submit if they pull in a certain amount of money. We pressed him, but Sydnor continued to insist that Enrichmond’s audits were online when they were not.

He had played this game before.

“If anybody wants to see our books, they are wide open,” he told more than 100 people at a June 2017 community meeting the Friends of East End hosted. When no such information was provided, that’s when we started filing Freedom of Information Act requests to the government agencies bankrolling Enrichmond. It’s these citizen-initiated FOIAs that have shed light into Enrichmond’s workings, not any routine government oversight.

Enrichmond Instagram post.

Enrichmond desperately needed its government handouts to survive because its own efforts at fundraising on the open market were so dismal. Its $25,000 GoFundMe campaign for Evergreen, launched in September 2020, earned the nonprofit just $1,606 in more than two years — and that campaign is still going as of this writing.

Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond, VA. December 20, 2022

Volunteers and descendants have been saying the obvious for years: saving the cemeteries will require a united front of citizens and government agencies. To be clear, saving East End and Evergreen means reclaiming them from nature and restoring them as memorial sites, not turning them into glorified parks. That’s precisely what Enrichmond proposed in its construction-heavy, preservation-light “master plan,” released with much fanfare in 2019. VOF backed that $19 million plan, and it’s not at all clear that it died with the Enrichmond Foundation. This is deeply worrisome.

Saving East End and Evergreen will also take money. In 1988, the City of Richmond estimated it would cost just shy of $3 million dollars to clean up Evergreen. East End would be another $350,000. That’s about $8.5 million in 2022 money. The estimate for annual maintenance was $282,850, or $720,000 in today’s cash. Imagine the firestorm if the mayor announced a plan to save the cemeteries unilaterally: You’re funding dead people and not living children, cops and firefighters, affordable housing? Recall the mayor!

Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond, VA. December 17, 2022

The City of Richmond alone can’t pull this off. If these sites truly matter to the officials who continually invoke the names of the towering figures buried there — Maggie L. Walker, John Mitchell Jr., Rosa Dixon Bowser, J. Andrew Bowler, Dr. Sarah Garland Boyd Jones — then we need Enrichmond’s former government backers to step up, tell us what went wrong, commit to a more transparent and community-engaged future, and then fund it.

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Brian Palmer

Brian Palmer is a Peabody Award-winning journalist and educator who lives in Richmond, VA.