Barton Heights Cemeteries
City of Richmond
Department of Community Development
Barton Heights Cemeteries are six contiguous burial grounds that African American churches and fraternal organizations established beginning in 1815. The six cemeteries are Cedarwood (originally Phoenix Cemetery), Union Mechanics (formerly Union Burial Ground), Methodist, Ebenezer, Sons and Daughters of Ham, and Sycamore. Together they are important reflections of what African Americans achieved in establishing cemeteries for their own. Burial societies helped establish the cemeteries offering death benefits, the most basic of insurance. These burial societies were the precursors of the benevolent organizations and fraternal orders and the black insurance companies of the later 19th and early 20th centuries. The Barton Heights Cemeteries are the final resting place of prominent African Americans in the city.
The burial grounds are on a sloping hillside overlooking Bacon’s Quarter Branch Valley. Today they seem to be one large cemetery, because no boundaries separate them. The first of the Barton Heights Cemeteries dates from 1815, when the Burying Ground Society of the Free People of Color of the City of Richmond established the Phoenix Burial Ground. Subscriptions of $5 to $20 obtained a place of burial for Richmond’s African Americans in the Phoenix grounds.
The Union Burial Ground Society established the second cemetery, Union Mechanics Burial Ground, in 1840. The society bought land from free African Americans Margaret and Peter Roper and sold 14’X14’ lots for $10 to free persons. Society members included the blacksmith Gilbert Hunt, a hero of the catastrophic 1811 Richmond Theater fire, who is buried in the Union Mechanics Burial Ground.
Ebenezer Baptist Church purchased land for the Ebenezer Cemetery as a burial place for its members, c. 1858. The Methodists created their own Methodist Cemetery, where Richard Forrester, one of the first black members of the city’s common council and a member of the Richmond school board rests.
The Sons and Daughters of Ham Burial Ground established another of the cemeteries, probably after emancipation. A number of fraternal organizations such as the Star of the East, the Redeemed Sons of Adam, St. Luke, and the Daughters of Ruth owned plots in the Sons and Daughter of Ham Cemetery. Sycamore Cemetery dates from the late 19th century, the sixth of the contiguous burial grounds.
Through much of the 19th century, the Barton Heights Cemeteries were among the primary places of burial for Richmond’s African Americans. The City of Richmond did create sections in its public burial ground for African American burials in 1816, and later in both its Shockoe Burial Ground (established in 1822) and Oakwood Cemetery (established in 1856).
Barton Heights Cemeteries continued in active use after the Civil War. In the 1880s, the cemeteries became a center for the celebration of a holiday referred to as “Negro Memorial Day,” the day that Richmond fell to Union forces in April 1865. A number of notable African Americans from this time obtained plots and are buried there, including the scholar, D. Webster Davis; Rev. James Holmes, pastor of First African Baptist Church; political leader Robert Austin Paul; and founder of the True Reformer’s Bank, William Washington Brown.
Hundreds of grave markers survive in the burial grounds made of slate, marble, granite, fieldstone, and concrete. Some of these have inscriptions of names and symbols of churches, fraternal orders, and beneficial organizations owning plots in the cemeteries. Several examples are markers that slave owners constructed for their slaves in the cemetery. A few sections of ornamental cast iron fencing surround some of the family burial plots. A number of big trees dot the landscape.
In the closing decades of the 19th century, burial associations and congregations largely filled up their burial grounds, although burials continued in Barton Heights until the 1970’s. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, African Americans organized other larger cemeteries in the outlying areas of Richmond, Evergreen, and Woodland. In 1934, Barton Heights Cemeteries came into the possession of the City of Richmond.
Concerted efforts to preserve the Barton Heights Cemeteries after years of neglect led to listing in the National Register, the placement of a historical marker, and improvements by the City of Richmond. These improvements include better maintenance of the cemetery and a new fence along St. James Street. In recent years, the Whit Monday (Memorial Day) services have become an important activity in the cemetery.