Community Engagement at VCU: Faculty Recognized for East End Cemetery Collaboratory’s Work to Restore Historic African American Burial Ground

The article below was written for the Virginia Commonwealth University Center for Community Engagement and Impact. The content was used on the center’s website, social media and e-newsletters.

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By Jenny Pedraza

On Oct. 15, the University of Richmond Bonner Center for Civic Engagement celebrated its third annual Engage for Change! Awards. The East End Cemetery Collaboratory was awarded the Collaboration for Change Award for excellence in authentic relationships and genuine collaboration to affect change.

The Collaboratory is a learning community supported by both UR and Virginia Commonwealth University that works to restore East End Cemetery, a historic African American burial ground in Henrico County and the city of Richmond. By engaging students and faculty across disciplines and institutions, the group curates and documents African American history and culture in Richmond and works to reclaim the cemetery site.

In 2016, Elizabeth Baughan, UR associate professor of classics and archaeology; and Kristine Grayson, UR associate professor of biology, launched the East End Cemetery Collaboratory in partnership with Friends of East End. With support from the UR Bonner Center for Civic Engagement and the VCU Center for Community Engagement and Impact, the Collaboratory has expanded over the years as faculty members from both institutions join. Among its products, the group has created an online map of the cemetery, supported by the UR Digital Scholarship Lab, which pinpoints the locations of grave markers using GIS technology and drone imagery.

Ryan Smith, a professor in the VCU Department of History, was part of the founding group of faculty. After coming to VCU in 2004, Smith began teaching courses on Richmond’s historic cemeteries, leading students out to East End Cemetery for tours and research.

“What tied everything together was my desire to engage students with the historic landscape and to push the students’ research out into community-engaged issues,” Smith said. “We wanted to view that landscape holistically, to explore how different sites and different communities and different eras all related to one another. East End Cemetery served as a critical component of our explorations.”

Smith said his students’ research was so productive that a website was launched to share their work with the public. Smith’s own research focused on the importance of recovery in understanding the cemeteries’ history. His book, “Death and Rebirth in a Southern City: Richmond’s Historic Cemeteries,” is set to be released by the Johns Hopkins University Press this month.

As the Collaboratory has grown, other VCU faculty and students have participated. East End Cemetery Collaboratory Fellows include three VCU faculty members – Michael Rackett, assistant professor, VCU ASPiRE; Ywone Edwards-Ingram, assistant professor, VCU Focused Inquiry; and Susan Bodnar-Deren, associate professor, VCU Department of Sociology. VCU ASPiRE students also have a long-standing partnership of service with the cemetery.

Smith said various disciplines approach the same site in different ways, and this joining together of efforts has led to great accomplishments, such as hosting large community gatherings for public discussions and aiding descendants and regular volunteers in clearing most of the recently overgrown grounds.

“The Collaboratory’s work can serve as a model for threatened properties beyond our region – particularly historic properties associated with minorities,” Smith said. “We have created a space of trust and mutual respect, where members of the group feel comfortable and confident about sharing work, trying new things and navigating difficult issues in the community. My students have seen themselves as part of a much larger effort with a critical public role to play, which deepens and enriches their educational experiences.”

Photo credit: VCU