Remembrance, Monuments, and the Edges of Human Rights
Visiting Assistant Professor of Peace, Justice, and Human Rights Adam Rosenblatt spent fall break in Richmond, Virginia working with volunteers at two historic African American burial grounds.
I spent much of my one-week fall vacation in Richmond, Virginia, working with volunteers in East End and Evergreen cemeteries, two historic African American burial grounds. They are resting places for individuals who were born as slaves and went on to create the first institutions of Richmond’s post-Civil War black society, as well as generations of those people’s descendants. Pokeweed and kudzu now cover many of their grave markers; others have sunk into the ground, or become illegible. My hosts in Richmond, the journalist-activists Brian Palmer and Erin Hollaway Palmer, are part of the Friends of East End, a network of volunteers that— along with local universities, churches, and other groups—is reclaiming these beautiful spaces and their history.
Taking a break from pulling weeds and conducting interviews, I spent a few afternoon hours in nearby Hollywood Cemetery, the well-maintained burial ground for Richmond’s white elite—home to the tomb of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. The contrast between the cemeteries, white (perfectly mowed) and black (choked with vines), was a stark reminder that inequities do not always end at death. Unexpectedly, at the top of a hill, I found a memorial to the Jewish soldiers who died “upon the battlefields and homefront in Dixie’s Land,” where, according to the memorial’s text, “they gave all to the cause of the Confederacy.” Little stones, which Jews place atop a gravestone when they visit, sat above flags bearing the stars and bars.
There had been much talk, during my visit, of just how much a gravestone weighs. Now I felt as if this one had fallen and pinned me under it. My grandparents on my father’s side arrived in the United States as refugees from the Holocaust in Poland. They had lost nearly every member of their families, and both of them saw this country and its institutions, including its universities, as beacons of hope and freedom. However, they were also aware of its injustices and imperfections. My grandfather used to say that racism was his adopted country’s greatest sin, for which it would someday pay a great price. I have often interpreted my Jewish identity and family history as demanding that I seek to extend to others the freedoms that my grandparents found in this country; yet the monument I saw atop that hill in Hollywood Cemetery was a reminder that none of us are free from entanglement with its greatest injustices.
I grew up with a narrative, a tradition, focused on how my people, persecuted for centuries, became the victims of some of the most brutal and bureaucratized hate the world has ever seen. Passover is one of our most important holidays of the year, and we spend it reciting—for two nights in a row—a story of liberation from slavery, and wishing that same liberation upon others who are still enslaved today. As my father said when I sent him the photograph of the memorial to Confederate Jews, “I guess these sons of Abraham didn’t celebrate Passover.” I see, in his remark, both a speedy assessment of hypocrisy, and a deeper wish—one I feel strongly too—to find some distance between the kind of Jews we are and the kind who would fight to defend slavery. We sit together on Passover, and dip the bitter herbs in saltwater, and bargain for the missing piece of matzo; surely they did not do these same things, did not sit at the same kind of table carrying out these same rituals. And yet surely they did.
What I participated in while visiting East End and Evergreen cemeteries was its own story of a community and its rituals—a story as complex, and as necessary to tell, as that of the inequities I witnessed there. When picturing people clearing kudzu off of graves in a cemetery, one imagines a grim crew, bent dutifully to their task. The life Brian and Erin have constructed for themselves, centered on these burial grounds, is so much more than that. Walking the cemetery with them, we pause as a pickup truck pulls up. I wonder if it is another person coming to dump tires and trash, and brace myself for an angry confrontation. No, it is their friend Melissa, whom they met right on this patch of land. Later, walking amongst the graves, they “introduce” me to people whose gravestones they have uncovered, and their voices sound the same as when they greeted Melissa: “Here’s Dr. Tancil! He’s one of our favorites”; and they proceed to tell me the story of this Howard University graduate, physician, and bank founder, whose headstone was stolen in 2015. Brian and Erin’s dog Teacake, who visits the cemeteries almost daily with them, roams through the space, rediscovering a ball she left behind on an earlier visit. Even the ever-growing Southern vines, the greatest obstacle to their work clearing the cemetery, elicit familiarity and sometimes awe. We pause in a field of kudzu that reaches past my waist, and they tell me this area was cleared to the ground only six months before. We take pictures to document the challenges, but also because it’s all beautiful—the kudzu too. East End and Evergreen are sacred spaces, and spaces of unexpected community. Our encounters, both planned and coincidental, cross multiple boundaries that are thicker in the world beyond the cemetery: between classes and races, human and plant, human and animal, and of course between the living and the dead.
The Catholic intellectual Joseph Bottum wrote, “The living give us crowds. The dead give us communities.” I’ve read the philosophers of cosmopolitanism, analyzed the learning rubrics that measure progress towards the ideal of global citizenship. I admire their clarity and the breadth of their vision. But global citizenship, as a practice—something that might make us into real communities, rather than merely softening the worst impulses of the crowd—strikes me as better reflected in what Brian, Erin, and others who find their way to East End and Evergreen are doing in those weedy fields: something ambivalent, sweaty, and slow. It grows in overlooked places, encompassing both the discovery of a forgotten grave and the kudzu that will cover that grave over again if no one returns regularly to pull it away. It grapples with the complexities of history, promises that live or die in the everyday life of institutions, hope and shame. Shame, as Jonathan Safran Foer writes, can be simply the desire to have “more satisfactory answers” for our children than we’ve found for ourselves. I will think of East End and Evergreen next Passover, and also of those fellow “sons of Abraham” I met up on the Hollywood hill.
Adam Rosenblatt, author of Digging for the Disappeared: Forensic Science after Atrocity (Stanford UP, 2015), is the organizer of the upcoming Rights at the Edge Symposium. The symposium showcases how scholars, activists, educators, and creators are pushing the "edges" of the human rights framework. The symposium begins this Thursday, November 2, including the evening opening of Brian Palmer and Erin Hollaway Palmer's photography exhibit All Our Sorrows Heal: Reclaiming the Past at East End and Evergreen Cemeteries, Richmond and Henrico County, Virginia. All are welcome.
The Center for Peace and Global Citizenship supported Dr. Rosenblatt’s fall break travel to Richmond, and is contributing to the Rights at the Edge symposium, along with several other Haverford College entities.