Learning from the Dead

November 12, 2015
Interdisciplinary Education in Richmond's East End Cemetery

Jory Brinkerhoff laughed as he covered up the numerous pink blotches of poison ivy on his left arm.

“Is that from the cemetery?” asked his colleague, Kristine Grayson.

“Yeah. I just got so into it. It looks a lot better than it did yesterday,” Brinkerhoff said, tugging on his sleeve.

The exchange was part of a flurry of questions centered on their sections of Integrated Biological Principles II—Biology 202, for short. The two are members of a team of biology faculty, including Emily Boone and Malcolm Hill, teaching four sections of the new course. This year, they and their 76 students conducted a lab in a long-neglected, but increasingly well-known place: the East End Cemetery.

The East End Cemetery is a historically significant African-American cemetery in Richmond, Va. Much of its history is hidden by unchecked vegetation growth. In the past, professors have taken students to the city’s historic, pristinely kept Hollywood Cemetery to record data on headstones and graph human survivorship. This year, the move to the East End Cemetery added a challenge to the assignment: Before students could gather their data, they had to uncover the graves, removing kudzu, English ivy, and layers of new soil.

“The cemetery lab is a classic because it is very effective at teaching human demography,” Hill said. “I even did it as an undergraduate. When I learned that we were thinking of adding the lab to our new 202 class, I immediately thought including East End provided a way to invigorate a lab that has been used for decades.

“Our whole team thought of creative ways to use the site. The impact on students has been fantastic. They wanted to go back to the site for all of our labs.”

The Biology 202 team is not the only group energized around work at the East End Cemetery. In the past few months, the historic site has gained attention from WTVR, The Nation, BBC, and more. Overgrown African-American cemeteries across the country, many lacking funding for permanent and continual care, have become another dimension in discussions about racial inequality and the value of black lives.

Underneath this current of national news, connective energy around the East End Cemetery has spread rapidly across campus. Perhaps this is to be expected given that journalists Brian Palmer and Erin Hollaway Palmer, whose photo-essay accompanied The Nation’s piece on the cemetery, were both adjunct faculty in the Journalism Department last spring. Their photographs are currently featured in an exhibit at the University of Richmond Downtown (URD), where the Biology 202 students saw the exhibit and heard directly from the photojournalists at RVA First Fridays and their Take 30 discussion.

The connections don’t end there. Religious studies professor Doug Winiarski gave a guest lecture to the Biology 202 classes. Students enrolled in Winiaski’s spring course Richmond: City of the Dead will also visit the cemetery in partnership with students in a Virginia Commonwealth University class taught by historian Ryan Smith.

Last spring, students in leadership studies professor Kim Gower’s Justice and Civil Society class assisted with cleanup efforts at the cemetery.

The Biology 202 team is collaborating with the Spatial Analysis Lab and Digital Scholarship Lab to ensure the data it collects is captured and made available online. At least three student groups are also visiting the cemetery for a workday organized by John Shuck, including UR SEEDS, Alpha Phi Omega, and Lambda Chi Alpha.

One of Grayson’s goals was not to “reinvent the wheel,” but to plug into and grow the energy that already exists. She considers the interdisciplinary connections to be strengths of UR’s contribution to the work at the cemetery and of her students’ learning.

“We have the same learning objectives for our students, but also connect them with this really powerful project,” Grayson said. “Even though the social and political part isn’t necessarily biology, it puts human survivorship and human mortality into a social context, which is powerful and interesting.”

Photo of East End Cemetery courtesy of Brian Palmer