In the historic Evergreen Cemetery, segregated resting place of many generations of Richmond’s Black families, lies the gravestone of Edward S. Brown. A visitor could be forgiven if they could not identify it as his right away: for one thing, due to years of institutional neglect, many of the graves are obscured by nature reclaiming the area, and for another, although his name is the largest text on the marker, it is not the first. The heavily inscribed gravestone instead begins with the name, “The Bench and Bar of Virginia,” who “have erected this tablet.” The smallest text tells you why: “for forty years faithful and effective service in the State Law Library.”
Gravestones are erected for the living. They allow loved ones to tell strangers about those who have passed on. For many families represented in these southern segregated cemeteries, there are few other physical reminders available to their descendants. My husband’s great-grandfather lies buried in Evergreen as well. The business he owned was replaced with a highway, the house he lived in with a parking lot, but the plot he bought to bury his family and the headstone they placed over him when he himself was laid to rest are some of the few pieces of physical evidence precariously remaining. The long legacy of disregard for Black lives continues even to the disregard of Black bodies after death. Often, those lovingly placed markers fight against that sentiment, inscribed with the most human of phrases that claim relationship with the deceased: “our mother,” “loving wife to John,” proof of a loving connection that extends, quite literally, beyond the grave.
So what does it mean when the relationship portrayed on a final resting place is not one of family but one of capitalistic ownership? All over this country, there are gravestones erected by white employers over Black bodies. Employers who seemingly didn’t pay their employees enough to purchase one themselves. Employers who felt the need to place their names on markers as if to lay claim not just to the monument but to the person beneath it.
As a white woman myself, I want to believe that those who erected grave markers to “Our Mamie” truly loved the woman buried underneath, but even if they did, “Our Mother” and “Our Mamie” are not the same kind of remembrance. Instead, “Mamie” marks a continuation of a white paternal relationship dependent on a Black woman’s “faithful and effective service.”
Edward S. Brown’s grave was first brought to my attention by a well-meaning white tour guide who cheerfully shared with our group the glowing newspaper articles she had read about Brown written by the leading white men of the day in the leading Virginia newspapers. At first glance, if one sees only the marker, it might be easy to think kindly on an employer that would honor someone in this manner.
I wanted to know more. The advances in technology and the work of folks, such as our very own Virginia Chronicle team, to digitize and index newspapers meant that I could easily locate these articles in order to learn more about Brown and his marker. The articles do provide a lot of context, if not much more about Brown himself. Just like the gravestone, one article headlined “The Molehill and the Mountain” in the Times Dispatch from January 30, 1911, starts not with Brown at all, but with a paragraph praising the Boston Herald for reporting Brown’s funeral in the manner in which the Richmond elite wanted it to be viewed.
There is no reason to doubt that Brown was an intelligent man who was successful in his official position as janitor and law library assistant, but every article is more propagandistic and paternalistic than the last. The Virginia legal community seemed inclined to publicize their appreciation for Brown expressly for the purpose of presenting an example of a “model minority.”
And they seemed to have, at least in their own minds, succeeded. The Times Dispatch reprinted in full the Boston Herald editorial, which congratulated Richmond for the reminder of the “10,000 daily acts of mutual kindness between the races,” in their view too often overshadowed by “a dozen tales of race conflict.”1 But one does not have to look too closely to see all the carve-outs and caveats in the praise of Edward S. Brown:
“Of all the colored men…none was more unique”2
“The news of his death will be received with deep regret, for he served honorably in an honored position, and his place will be hard to fill”3
“The pastor referred especially to the unique tribute which the white citizens had paid to the deceased”4
“Honoring him with the title of friend”5
“Our late assistant, who although a colored man, was one of us”6
In a much more forthright manner, the newspaper extolled the “evidence of the esteem of white men for a negro” who “…was not the sensitive pessimist that Du Bois is; he would have taken little interest in what William Lloyd Garrison, of Boston, would say; he would not have greeted with any warmth William Monroe Trotter. Brown was a lawyer, taking pride in what he did, helpful but not vain and puffed up, respected by all who knew him.”7
Brown started at the State Law Library as a janitor and taught himself enough to become an assistant law librarian (hopefully reflected with extra pay). There are even mentions of him possibly having obtained a law degree, though he never practiced. The legal community recognized his work in theory, taking “occasion to mention him in a foot note” once or twice, but after forty years of work, when State Law Librarian W. W. Scott drafted that “suitable inscription” for his gravestone in 1910; he was still simply “the faithful assistant of the library.”8
In October 1910, the month of Brown’s death, another man started as a janitor at the State Library, presumably Brown’s replacement. “Fortune was kind” to Lloyd M. Richards, “a country boy who came to the city and made good.” Richards worked in the State Library for 30 years, rising from “janitor, to library assistant, to librarian” with the kindly help of none other than State Law Librarian W. W. Scott, eventually becoming Scott’s successor as State Law Librarian. As a white man, Scott’s patronage of Richards allowed him to rise from janitor to the highest position in his field. Brown received a marker, after his death. The marker, even if offered in good faith and esteem, loses some of its polish.
Some critics may not agree with this analysis, it could be called “revisionist” by some. But history is always being revised. What has happened has happened; the facts do not change, but how we understand them, given greater knowledge and context, does. We all do this in our personal lives. You may watch a movie you first saw as a child, and although the movie itself has not changed, upon a second viewing as an adult, the knowledge and context you’ve gained by life experiences suddenly make the jokes funny (or not) this time around. We do the same with what we know of the past, filtering it through the knowledge and context we have gained since the events happened. In fact, this experience is so common that there is a whole branch of scholarship called historiography, basically the history of history.
As we add more context and knowledge to our understanding of history, we can sometimes see the threads of discrimination and prejudice that we did not notice on the surface. The facts have not changed, but our understanding of them and how they affect the present have. Of course, there is inevitably room for debate on these perspectives, since most of us were not present and intimately involved in the history we are processing.
The 1619 Project, written by journalists and historians, has introduced to the public some such perspectives. Some are not new to the academic community but are still, like many aspects of history, subject to discussion, debate, and perhaps acceptance. One thing is certain however — our past shapes our present. Join us virtually for the Common Ground Book Group on Tuesday, February 15th at 6p.m. to discuss the essays in The 1619 Project and the connections the authors have drawn between the legacy of slavery and the inequalities of today or check out the resources below.
You can also register to volunteer in our February virtual Transcribe-a-thon where we will be working on the burial registers for Evergreen Cemetery. By transcribing these records we are able to make them more accessible by allowing them to be searchable in our digital collections and providing transcriptions for those who cannot read the original handwriting. Register to join us, February 9th at 5:30pm.
Written by Jessi Bennett, Digital Collections Specialist
Resources compiled by Becky Schneider, Senior Reference Librarian
Library of Virginia Resources
- African American Research at the Library of Virginia to 1870 (Research guide)
- Remaking Virginia: Transformation Through Emancipation (Online exhibition)
- To Be Sold: Virginia and the American Slave Trade (Online exhibition)
- Virginia Chronicle: African American Newspapers (Digital collection)
- Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative (Digital collection)
- Baptist, Edward E. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. New York: Basic Books, 2014.
- Berry, Diana Ramey. Their Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved from Womb to Grave in the Building of a Nation. Boston: Beacon Press, 2017.
- Draper, Christina S., Tommy Bogger, Mary Lou Holtgren, and Jeanne Zieldler. Don’t Grieve After Me: The Black Experience in Virginia, 1619-2005. Charlottesville: Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy, 2005.
- Horton, James Oliver, and Lois E. Horton, eds. Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory. New York: New Press, 2006.
- Rothman, Joshua. The Ledger and the Chain: How Domestic Slave Traders Shaped America. New York: Basic Books, 2021.
- Rothstein, Richard. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017.
- Taylor, Alan. The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.
- White, Deborah Gray. Ar’n’t I A Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South. 2d ed. New York, Norton: 1999.
- The 1619 Project Curriculum (Pulitzer Center)
- African American History (Encyclopedia Virginia)
- African American History Education Commission (Commonwealth of Virginia)
- Setting a Path for a More Equitable Commonwealth: Reports from The Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law and The Commission to Examine Racial and Economic Inequity in Virginia Law (Commonwealth of Virginia)
- Teaching Hard History (Southern Poverty Law Center)
1619 Project Responses
- AHA Condemns Report of Advisory 1776 Commission (American Historical Association)
- The Fight Over the 1619 Project Is Not About the Facts (The Atlantic)
- The Historians Are Fighting (Slate)
- I Helped Fact-Check the 1619 Project. The Times Ignored Me (Politico)
- Lawmakers Push to Ban ‘1619 Project’ From Schools (Education Week)
- We Respond to the Historians Who Critiqued The 1619 Project (New York Times)
- What Is Critical Race Theory, and Why Is It Under Attack? (Education Week)
- The Times Dispatch (Richmond, VA), January 30, 1911.
- The Times Dispatch (Richmond, VA), October 19, 1910.
- The Times Dispatch (Richmond, VA), October 22, 1910.
- The Times Dispatch (Richmond, VA), October 21, 1910.
- The Times Dispatch (Richmond, VA), January 30, 1911.
- The Times Dispatch (Richmond, VA), October 19, 1910, The Mathews Journal, November 24, 1910.
- The Times Dispatch (Richmond, VA), November 10, 1940.