Evergreen Cemetery clean-up reveals lost family gravesite
It’s typical to think of graveyards as gloomy, bleak and desolate places.
But on a recent spring-like day in February, Evergreen Cemetery bustled with cheery workers wearing breezy smiles, and echoed with the sounds of youthful exuberance.
Almost 50 students from Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Union University had turned out, along with a dozen or so other volunteers, to help Welford Williams (pictured above, with students) reach his mother’s side for a long-overdue visit.
Williams, age 87, last visited his mother’s grave in 1972. He had just retired from the U.S. Postal Service, and brought his six-year-old daughter Bridgette to the cemetery.
Forty years ago, he told the volunteers, the vegetation was already beginning to take over. But Williams could recall a time when the cemetery was nothing but grass and headstones. As a 10-year-old, he had hunted for Easter eggs among the grave markers.
“[This] was wide open then,” he marveled, gesturing at the tall trees and heavy overgrowth surrounding his mother’s grave. “It looked just like Hollywood Cemetery.”
In the years since, however, vegetation has all but obliterated grave sites, roads and pathways, making it impossible for Williams to get his bearings and find the plot.
So it was only natural that Williams’ ears perked up when, at a meeting of the Henrico Historical Society, he heard John Shuck mention a project to spruce up Evergreen.
“My mother is buried there,” he told Shuck.
Ever since, said Shuck, he’s been on a mission to find Pearl Williams.
A recent winner of the Award of Merit from the Henrico Preservation Advisory Committee, Shuck began visiting cemeteries while pursuing his interest in genealogical research.
On his first visit to Evergreen in 2008, he recalls being completely overwhelmed. The cemetery, which sprawls along the city-county border in eastern Henrico, was used as an illegal dump for decades. On one early trip there, Shuck and his fellow volunteers took just two hours to fill a large dumpster with tires from the site.
“You had to bushwhack back then,” he said. “You couldn’t walk through here.”
Since then, Shuck and his colleagues Vicki and John Stephens (who also received awards from HPAC) have spent many a Saturday clearing wide paths through the underbrush, uncovering graves and even sections of paved road. The addition of so many VCU and VUU volunteers, he says, has provided a huge boost of manpower to the group and accelerated the pace of the clean-up project.
And in mid-February, just off one of the newly-cleared paths, volunteer Dave Campbell stumbled upon the grave of Pearl E. Williams.
“I was just exploring,” recalled Campbell. “We’ve been looking for it for two years. [I thought], We’re never gonna find this thing – and then there it was. I just stood staring at if for a minute. It was almost mystical.”
“The way it was standing up there,” added John Shuck’s wife, Debbie, “it was just waiting to be found.”
A week later, Welford Williams arrived at Evergreen with wife, several daughters and a few grandchildren in tow. Led to his mother’s side, he placed flowers around the grave.
“I don’t think Momma will mind me stepping on her,” he said with a smile as he arranged the flowers.
“She’s probably glad to see you,” called out a family member.
After everyone posed for pictures, Williams said he wanted to address the students. Passing around photos of his parents, and a baby picture of himself, he described the night that his mother was laid to rest.
She died three weeks after Pearl Harbor, he told the volunteers, on Christmas night. The funeral was held so late in the evening that car headlights had to be used to illuminate the grave.
Among the family members that Williams introduced was his daughter Bridgette, who had stood on a tree stump by the grave on his last visit in 1972.
Today a pre-kindergarten teacher at Glen Lea Elementary School, Bridgette Williams was ecstatic at seeing the long-lost site again.
“This is incredible,” she exclaimed, noting that her cousins in Philadelphia had been thrilled when she contacted them with the news. “One, she’s crying, because she never got to see her grandmother’s grave.
“They can’t come from Philly,” she said, “but I’m sending pictures.”
Her sister Winifred was quick to chime in with high praise for the student volunteers who had helped bring the moment about.
“You always hear about the bad [regarding young people],” said Winifred. “You never hear about the good, about kids like this.”
Their father, eyes shining, clearly echoed the sentiment.
“What a good-looking bunch of young people -- I don’t see no ugly faces nowhere!” Welford Williams told the smiling students. “I will never forget this day, meeting you, and finding my mother’s grave.
Thanks to a first-place win in The American Protege International Vocal Competition 2014, Glen Allen High School student Matija Tomas will travel to New York City to perform at Carnegie Hall in December.
At the first-place winners recital in Weill Hall, Matija will perform Giacomo Puccini’s opera aria, “Chi il bel sogna di doretta.” She will perform with other vocalists from around the world and have the opportunity to win other awards and scholarships.
Locally, Thomas has performed with Richmond’s renowned Glorious Christmas Nights, Christian Youth Theatre, and WEAG’s Urban Gospel Youth Choir. > Read more.
The John Rolfe YMCA and Gayton Baptist Church have partnered in an effort to bring greater health and wellness opportunities to the community.
Through this partnership, the John Rolfe Y will run Youth Winter Sports programs, including basketball and indoor soccer, in Gayton’s newly renovated $5.5 million outreach center that features a new gymnasium, youth and teen space, social space with café, meeting space and full service commercial kitchen. > Read more.
Citizen Staff Reports 09/15/2014
Henricus Historical Park will commemorate its anniversary during Publick Day, a signature annual event that celebrates the establishment of the second successful English settlement in the New World. In September 1611, Sir Thomas Dale, along with soldiers, tradesmen and farmers, ventured from Jamestown to create the Citie of Henricus. Leaders of Henricus developed the first English hospital, chartered the first college in North America, established tobacco as the first cash crop in Virginia, and created a place where Pocahontas lived and met John Rolfe.
Publick Day will take place Saturday, Sept. 20, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free and parking is $5 per vehicle. > Read more.
Paid extras are being sought to appear in the AMC television series TURN: Washington's Spies, which will begin filming its second season in the Richmond area at the end of September and continue through February.
No experience is required, but producers say that extras must have flexible availability, reliable transportation and a positive attitude.
Arvold Casting is holding an open call on Sunday, Sept. 21 and is seeking men, women and children who are Caucasian, African American and Native American, with thin to average builds and who can realistically portray people living in Revolutionary War times. Long hair is a plus but not a must. > Read more.
TGIF! Celebrate the weekend at Oak Hall Baptist Church’s Community Block Party on Saturday. Learn more about ballroom dancing, art and Colonial times. Or take the kids to Generation Z Games for water play or Southern Season to cook up a Disney-theme meal. For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.
Check out these three B’s in Henrico this weekend: books, bluegrass and “Born Yesterday.” Other activities to participate in – and feel good about – are the 15th annual James River Regional Cleanup and the 5th annual Richmond Out of the Darkness Community Walk. For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.
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