For much of its almost 150 years, the former slave cemetery now known as East Hill Cemetery North has been in the shadows.
Now three striking 11-foot-tall white crosses mark the entrance to the hillside cemetery behind the Salem Museum in Longwood Park. They are bathed in bright light at night and symbolically stand out against the darkness and past years of divisiveness.
The crosses in that graveyard which was at one time the only large space where blacks were allowed to be buried were dedicated July 30 by members of Deacon John H. “Billy” Branson Jr.’s family, in front of a crowd of G.W. Carver School alumni and friends.
“Daddy is smiling down at us,” said Branson’s son, Richard Branson of Salem on Sunday after the dedication. “That the last of his projects.” In 2006, Billy Branson spearheaded a project to come up with all the names the black community could of people who were buried in the cemetery, and place them on three bronze plaques set into stone walls at the base of the entrance of the cemetery. The city paid for those walls. The crosses were Branson’s next dream.
Volunteers who raised more than $2,500 in only a month to have the crosses made and installed hope the crosses will not only mark the cemetery that dates back to 1871, but also will mark the beginning of a new awareness and reverence toward the burial place. It was once known as “Burwell Cemetery,” “the African Cemetery” and “the Colored Cemetery” and to this day, no one is quite sure who owns it and is responsible for its upkeep, community members say.
In recent years the City of Salem has taken on the mowing of grass around the ancient tombstones and depressions which show other headstones used to be there before they were vandalized, broken off or stolen. There still are no gates to the cemetery, and no police ride-throughs, cemetery committee members point out, unlike the mostly white East Hill Cemetery across Main Street. East Hill is owned by the City of Salem.
The City of Salem pays for electricity to light the crosses, said Wilson, who isn’t sure who owns the cemetery now. “I guess the African American community owns it,” she added.
“We had to clean our own space,” remembered Richard Branson. “When I was about 7 or 8 I remember helping my grandmother Mamie Dooley put roses here on my great-grandmother’s grave, Mollie Dooley Jackson, and on the grave of my Aunt Ethel D. Joiner’s little baby who was buried here somewhere. We lived down across from Shiloh Baptist Church then on Burwell Street, and I remember the casket of that beautiful little baby being brought to the house,” he added.
It was 2011 when his father, a well-known and active Salem black citizen and barber shop owner who died at age 94 the following year, envisioned the idea of making East Hill North Cemetery more attractive and visible to Salem residents and visitors to the newly renovated Salem Museum. He started out making miniature white crosses out of plastic and placing them in the cemetery. His son helped him.
More recently, Richard Branson has made three 3-foot-high crosses out of white metal pipe to mark his great-grandmother, great-grandfather and another family member’s graves on the back side of the cemetery near where the Bransons live.
No family members named Branson are buried in East Hill North, he mentioned.
His daddy planned to make and place 75 crosses, Richard Branson remembered, but people vandalized the crosses and stole them. Friends who ultimately formed the East Hill Cemetery Committee brought the vandalism and neglect to the attention of Salem City Manager Kevin Boggess, committee member Nancy Wilson said, and in 2014 city officials came up with the idea of erecting three large crosses.
She said the estimated cost was $1,500 then but city officials told her there were no funds. By 2015 the cost had gone up to $2,500, and still no money, so nine of Branson’s friends formed the committee, used their own money and stamps to send out letters, open a bank account and a post office box. They reached out to friends and the community at large including Carver alumni living outside Virginia to raise money.
“We said we would not be deterred,” explained Wilson, even if the city didn’t have money to put up the crosses. The retired Glenvar and Northside teacher noted that the original owner of the cemetery land, Burwell, “was one of the largest slave owners in the county, and that the cemetery was there before the white cemetery – East Hill across Main Street – was founded. The City of Salem owns East Hill Cemetery.
Within a month, they had raised $4,000, Richard Branson said. The committee is banking the additional funds for future use to improve the cemetery. Wilson said the committee plans to have the base of the crosses engraved.
The crosses are 8 feet tall by themselves, and including the bases, two stand 11 feet and the center one, 12 feet. City of Salem Street and Building Maintenance Director Mike Tyler said noted the process of making the crosses is shown on the City of Salem’s Facebook site which includes the metal form that was used to mold the crosses.
His department erected the crosses in April. The committee decided to wait to hold a formal dedication until the last Sunday of July when the Carver Reunion takes place.
A brief ceremony opened and closed with dedication prayers by the Rev. Melton Johnson of First Baptist Church in Salem – who is a member of the East Hill North Cemetery Committee – remarks by Salem Mayor Randy Foley, an explanation of how the cross project evolved. Three committee members unveiled the big crosses by taking off a purple shroud, and then Billy Branson’s son and daughter-in-law Richard and Betty Branson, grandson Dickie Branson and granddaughter Robin Branson McCoy placed a wreath.
“I’m definitely here for Granddaddy,” Robin McCoy said.
Mayor Foley told the crowd of about 75 people “This is a sacred place for all those who rest here and their families. Billy Branson did his utmost to make sure it was recognized and to make it happen.” Vice Mayor Bill Jones also spoke, noting what Branson personally had meant in his life.
Committee Member Nancy Wilson summarized what she wrote in a program handed out that day, which explained the “Beginning and the End,” as she called it, explaining how Billy Branson had the vision to make the cemetery more attractive.
“Hopefully this is the beginning of continuous improvement to East Hill North Cemetery,” Nancy Wilson said. She explained before the ceremony that the committee is encouraged by Gov. Terry McCauliffe recently signing House Bill 1547 to provide for the maintenance of 6,975 historic African American graves and markers at East End and Evergreen cemeteries in Richmond.
A second bill directs the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities to “preserve and share significant sites and stories relating to the history of enslaved peoples in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
“We are going to get that money from the state,” Wilson said.
Members of the East Hill North African American Cemetery Committee are Richard Branson, Lois Hopson, Mattie Mann, Maxine Trent, Nancy Wilson, Charlotte Dunston, the Rev. Melton Johnson, Marian Roach and Maxine Joiner Wright.