Ham Cemetery Stands Strong

by Jon Baliles

Over in the woods behind Bandy Field Nature Park in the West End along (and overlapping with) the border of Henrico County near the Village Shopping Center, there is a small African-American cemetery with an enormous history that recently appeared in a feature by Bill Pike in the Henrico Citizen; it is well worth the fascinating read.

Just to set the stage: the cemetery is in an area that was important going back to colonial (and pre-colonial) times as the meeting point of two main roads — Three Notch’d Road (Three Chopt) and Horsepen Road. It was along the path of Dahlgren’s Raid in the Civil War, and it was also home to Huntley Plantation that held members of the Bradford family as slaves who, after emancipation, bought property with other freed slaves, along what is now known as Bandy Road (read a more detailed and absorbing history here). They expanded the formerly secret slave organization, the Sons of Ham, and in 1873 established the Sons and Daughters of Ham Cemetery. In the late 19th Century, Maggie Walker took a leadership role in forging an agreement between the Independent Order of St. Luke, which she ran, and the Ham Council.

More homes were built over the years until the mid-20th Century, when the City of Richmond (which had annexed the area in 1942) announced plans to build a school on the property, cited eminent domain, forced the residents out, and razed the houses and flattened the Civil War era earthworks in the area. After the families dispersed to Bon Air, Henrico, Northside, and the Westwood Neighborhood, the school was never built and the ability of the former residents to maintain the cemetery became a challenge.

Marianne Rollings has been the keeper of the flame for the cemetery and efforts to preserve it, and told The Citizen “I lived two blocks away from the cemetery, and the years of decomposing leaves and overgrown vegetation prevented me from finding the cemetery.” It is estimated that somewhere between 50 and 100 graves are in the cemetery, but only two grave markers still remain.

Yet, the two remaining markers are significant. One marker honors Private Moses Bradford, Jr., a Buffalo Soldier, and son of the founder of the Sons of the Ham Council. The other marker remembers Queenie Bradford Johnston, the granddaughter of that same founder. Queenie’s father had also toiled on the plantation.

Attempts to sell the property in the late 1990’s were thwarted by the non-profit Friends of Bandy Field and members of the original Bradford family and by 2019, the cemetery became a non-profit itself and Rollings was successful in winning grants from the National Trust and the Virginia Outdoors Foundation. Many have volunteered to help with efforts to maintain the cemetery with four annual clean-up days from volunteers like the Boy Scouts, Henrico County and University of Richmond employees, and Friends of East End Cemetery, as well as other non-profits.

The group hosted a 150th anniversary commemoration of the establishment of the cemetery this past weekend, and those with an interest in helping in future may reach out to Mrs. Rollings at hamcemeteryrva@gmail.com or click here to visit the website.

Jon Baliles is a former Richmond City Councilman who writes the RVA 5×5 blog. This column is republished with permission.