Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Virginia Commonwealth University students are producing audio podcasts that tell the dramatic and often little-known stories found in Richmond's cemeteries, including narratives of notable figures from the Revolutionary War, slavery, the Civil War and beyond.
"The idea here is that the students are contributing to a resource, where somebody visiting a cemetery could download some of these podcasts to their phones or, if they've got wireless, then access them while they're there, and listen as they walk around the cemetery grounds," said Ryan Smith, Ph.D, an associate professor in VCU's Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences.
Over the past several years, Smith's students have been learning about American history through the lens of Richmond-area burial sites. As a research project, teams of two or three students pick a local grave marker, research the person's life via census records, digitized newspaper archives, letters and other documents, and then produce a podcast telling the person's story.
"Rather than having them write a paper, I have them do a recording narrating what they've found – and teaching them also about the importance of research," Smith said. “The goal is not just to use Wikipedia. There's great stuff online, but it gets us into what's a primary source? What's a secondary source? How do historians work? So they get to see a little bit of that."
The best podcasts are posted online at the Richmond's Historic Cemeteries' website, which aims to highlight the region's notable gravesites and offering a portal for research and self-guided tours.
"In this way, hopefully the students see that their research can make a difference in the life of their community," Smith said
Most of the podcasts posted so far have emphasized the stories of lesser-known figures rather than the most high-profile people – such as James Monroe, John Tyler, Jefferson Davis or J.E.B. Stuart – buried in Richmond cemeteries.
"Most people, when they think of touring a cemetery here in Richmond, they think about Hollywood Cemetery," Smith said. "But even there, it's so big and there are so many burials, that there are smaller stories like [science fiction author] James Branch Cabell or Ellen Glasgow – another novelist from here in town – and a million other stories, a lot of which get lost. These podcasts help visitors see beyond Jefferson Davis and folks like that."
For Hollywood Cemetery, one podcast posted so far focuses on William Barrett, a wealthy tobacco merchant and slavemaster to Henry "Box" Brown, who escaped to freedom by mailing himself in a crate to abolitionists. Another tells the story of Richmond hatmaker Sara Sue Waldbauer. Yet another explores the life of Elizabeth Monroe, the first lady of the United States and an eyewitness to the French Revolution.
Several podcasts have been posted so far for Hebrew Cemetery, which opened in 1817. One podcast tells the story of Benjamin Wolfe, a city councilman and the first burial at Hebrew. Another focuses on Richmond jeweler William H. Schwarzschild.
People buried at Evergreen Cemetery – the region's premier African-American burial site at the height of the Jim Crow era, but has since fallen into disrepair – are also the subjects of podcasts, including one telling the story of Maggie L. Walker, the noted philanthropist, activist and first female bank president in the United States.
One team of students is researching the Braxton family mausoleum at Evergreen, as it has been the target of vandalism over the decades.
"This is an above-ground crypt that vandals have been breaking into for years," Smith said. "It's the only mausoleum at Evergreen, the African-American cemetery on the east end of town, and it was a sign of wealth. We have newspaper reports on vandalism taking place at Evergreen going back to the 1960s and 70s. It seems to have been a place for fraternity initiations."
One of Smith's students, who is also a VCU staff member, is doing a podcast on her family members buried at Evergreen. She recently rediscovered the location of her grandmother's grave there, amid much overgrowth.
Dana Bannerman, a senior psychology major, is part of a three-student team producing a podcast on Mary Ryan, a munitions worker who died during the Civil War after accidentally causing an explosion at the Confederate Laboratory on Brown's Island.
"Mary Ryan's life and death has become a very interesting topic to research," Bannerman said. "She was a young, unmarried girl working in an incredibly unsafe Confederate States laboratory and accidentally caused an explosion that led to her death and the death of many others."
Bannerman said the highlight of Smith's class was a field trip to Hollywood Cemetery.
"I had never been to the cemetery and was not aware of its magnitude," she said.
VCU student Lauren Smallwood is part of a team putting together a podcast on Gabriel, a slave who led a planned slave rebellion in Richmond in the summer of 1800. Gabriel is buried at the so-called "Burial Ground for Negroes," in Shockoe Bottom.
"Smart and courageous, Gabriel recruited a couple hundred slaves he thought he could trust to take over the Capitol on Aug. 30, 1800," Smallwood said. "On the evening of the planned uprising, however, a storm hit the area. Because of the troublesome conditions, Gabriel and his followers postponed the plan. Before the group could plan for another day to pursue the rebellion, word got out. Gabriel escaped Richmond but was captured in Norfolk and brought back to Richmond. He was questioned by the court but didn't reveal information about his plan or anyone involved. On Oct. 10, Gabriel was hanged at the gallows at 15th and Broad Street."
Two students are researching Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union spy and abolitionist during the Civil War, who is buried at Shockoe Hill Cemetery.
Another team is looking into William Byrd II, the founder of Richmond in 1734, who is buried at Westover Plantation.
Yet another group is doing a podcast on Maggie Walker's husband, Armistead Walker, who is also buried at Evergreen.
"Not that many folks know about Armistead Walker," Smith said. "Maggie Walker herself gets a lot of attention, and certainly rightfully so, but she had a real tragedy when her husband died because her grown son thought that her husband was an intruder one night, and he shot him dead."
Edgar Allan Poe's mother, Eliza Poe, who is buried at St. John's churchyard, is the subject of another podcast being researched.
Part of the project, Smith said, is to highlight some of Richmond's largely forgotten, yet historically important, cemeteries.
"Take Shockoe Hill Cemetery, for example," he said. "It's got John Marshall, the chief justice of the United States [who led the court in decisions such as] Marbury v. Madison. He was one of the most important Supreme Court justices in the history of the United States. He's buried there right next to his wife. You can visit that cemetery and walk right by without realizing it."
The project also aims to generate support for the preservation of Richmond's historical burial grounds, as they face threats from development, vandalism and decay.
"Places like Evergreen Cemetery or Barton Heights Cemetery – which was the African-American burial ground subsequent to the 'Burial Ground for Negroes' in Shockoe Bottom – have been overlooked for so long, and hopefully this can help put those places on the map," Smith said.
"We can say," he added, "Here's some really important people like Gabriel who are buried down there in Shockoe Bottom, that people drive by every day and don't realize that it used to be a burial ground."
For access to the complete listing of podcasts, visit http://wp.vcu.edu/richmondcemeteries/.
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