There is a dark narrow road on the border of Richmond and Henrico County that few have traveled in recent years except John Shuck and groups of volunteers, including ASPiRE students. This road takes you to the East End Cemetery where grave markers are broken and iron fences have been bent by tangled tree roots. The 16-acre cemetery is a place that has been long forgotten and neglected by many.
East End Cemetery, a historically black, privately-owned cemetery, was established in the 1897. Thousands of the city’s residents are buried at the cemetery, with tombstones extending far into the woods. According to Shuck, the cemetery fell into disrepair because the families opted to care for the site themselves, but with time, people moved away or passed on. By the 1970s, the cemetery was largely abandoned.
As a result of the hard work of Shuck and his cadre of dedicated volunteers, the cemetery is slowly filing with light and coming back to life. Nearly every weekend, Shuck can be found cleaning debris from the cemetery and coordinating volunteers who give him a much needed helping hand.
“When I see John working selflessly to restore a cemetery where none of his family members are buried, I am reminded that there are good people in this city who are dedicated to making life better for others,” said Nerice Lochansky, assistant director of ASPiRE.
Shuck grew up on a family farm in central Iowa and worked for many years as a software programmer in Atlanta. He had no ties to Virginia until he moved to Richmond in 2001 after retiring.
“There is history in the East End cemetery," he said. “I’ve been interested in genealogy all of my adult life so it was easy for me to get hooked volunteering at the cemetery."
Since Shuck started working in the cemetery, about 800 graves have been cleared, but it is estimated that 4,000 to 5,000 graves remain untouched. It appears that his work to reclaim the East End cemetery will continue for years.
“It’s easy to look at this and say we will never get this done, but you have to keep moving forward and clean one plot at a time,” he said.
For more information about volunteering with the East End Cemetery, contact Nannette Bailey, ASPiRE community partnership coordinator, at email@example.com.