RVA 5X5: Enrichmond and the City’s Radio Silence

Photo credit: Flickr

by Jon Baliles

I won’t do a “Top Stories of 2022” list for this newsletter, but if I did, one of them would surely be the collapse of the Enrichmond Foundation and the radio silence on all fronts concerning its finances, the groups that depended on it, their assets, and the two historic Black cemeteries in its portfolio — Evergreen and East End Cemetery.

The important question is not so much what happened in 2022 (although that is important); the critical next steps — should anyone decide to take them — are what will happen in 2023?

A brief recap from the October 14 newsletter: “The Enrichmond Foundation was founded in the early 1990s and had grown to support more than 80 small, local, all-volunteer groups that worked to help Richmond in various ways, many of which focused on keeping the City green and clean. Enrichmond allowed the groups to use their insurance coverage and raise tax-free donations, served as a fiduciary for the funds each group raised, and distributed those funds as directed by the groups.

Suddenly in June, the Foundation announced a cessation of operations, leaving no transition plan. The Board voted to dissolve the Foundation but left no accounting of the funds it had in its accounts, and then within weeks the lawyer representing the Board stepped away from his role as counsel.

None of the “leaders” at City Hall has said anything about this. Not. A. Word.

The City’s Parks & Recreation Department has been able to assist some of the organizations, but there are so many they can’t do it all themselves. That’s why the Foundation existed. It is known that the amount of money held in trust for the various “Friends Of” groups is anywhere from $300,000 to $3 million, though I have been told recently that it is closer to the lower estimate.

While the City dawdles, how are these small “Friends Of” groups to do the important work they do (much of it is environmental) if they can’t access their donations? How can they raise money if they have no place to put it? The more this drags out, it is a safe bet those groups will lose volunteers, who will put their time toward other causes.

As I wrote in October, Mayor Levar Stoney seemed to love the work Enrichmond was doing, especially with the methodical restoration of the cemeteries — he paid a visit to Evergreen Cemetery on a clean-up day in 2017. Two years later, he returned to deliver a speech on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday; and in February 2020, Stoney gave a speech at the Maggie Walker House in Jackson Ward about the new $19 million community-driven restoration plan for Evergreen: “It is long overdue that we protect these spaces … and it is our commitment as a city that we will step up and do our part,” Stoney said that day. Then last year, the City withdrew the $75,000 that had been an annual appropriation from the City to Enrichmond with little notice and no explanation.

So there is a lot of talk and photo-ops, but no movement in the last six months since Enrichmond folded. And that is where the City’s lack of action is not only shameful, but insulting to the more than 10,000 people buried in the cemeteries and their descendants and loved ones. Many graves are visible and marked but it is unknown how many are still under nature’s thumb since the weeds and forest began to swallow the properties in the early 1980s.

So, we’ve clearly established that there are a lot of problems — but zero solutions or suggestions to address and fix the mess. So let’s go through the landscape of the situation and what might be done about it.

Let’s start with dissolution of the Enrichmond Foundation Board. They voted to dissolve earlier this summer, as was reported in numerous media outlets. However, while the Board voted to dissolve, it (or its lawyer) has not yet taken the required steps with the State Corporation Commission (SCC) to make the dissolution official and complete. Those steps include filing Articles of Dissolution and Articles of Termination, plus $20 in fees, according to the SCC.

Upon the dissolution of the Board, the charter for the Foundation states that the non-profit’s assets are supposed to go to the City of Richmond. Those include the assets of the now-defunct Tricycle Gardens, which dissolved and transferred its assets to Enrichmond in early 2020, as well as the two cemeteries and anything else that might be listed in the required filings. The City would gain control of all of it and be able to make decisions regarding the remaining assets, but cannot take control of the properties until such a filing takes place.

Other options include filing for bankruptcy, which is not a good option because the land would be lost to the courts and a bidding situation. (The cemeteries could not be developed because of a conservation easement placed on the properties by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, but ownership could transfer.) Giving away the land to another foundation or entity is not possible because there are creditors who are owed money.

And, if the Board were to make the dissolution filing to the SCC, the individual members would not be covered by Directors & Officers Insurance, which protects them from personal liability for decisions or actions for which they were not responsible. But if the City were to file for receivership, which it can do  legally as an outstanding creditor, then the dissolution with the SCC would not be necessary and the City would still gain control.

There are only two entities currently with a claim to file receivership for Enrichmond’s assets: a bank, which is an outstanding creditor, and the City. Essentially, the first to file for receivership would control the process that is driven by the courts. The court-appointed receiver could sell the land or assets to recoup its costs.

According to my sources, Enrichmond has asked the City to initiate the receivership filing with the court and, as mentioned, the City has standing because it is owed money. The receivership process is not particularly complicated, but the City has made it known that it does not want to address this in a quick time frame — perhaps six months from now, in the summer of 2023 — maybe.

The Mayor is very fond of casinos and gambling, but this is what could happen if the remaining Enrichmond Board members walk away from the process entirely because of continued delays: the other outstanding creditor (the bank) could file for receivership ahead of the City and take control of all of Enrichmond’s assets.

If the bank does that, they get to steer the ship that would determine what would happen with the land parcels, the cemeteries, and remaining assets. If the City goes first, all of that would be protected, which would enable those that care to protect these assets and help develop a plan for next steps for all of it.

You would think the Mayor and City Council would be all over this simple filing to create some space and time to do what is needed. By law, the people who care about protecting these cemeteries can’t initiate the receivership claim. The City has a claim and CAN initiate receivership — but apparently the desire is lacking.

How is that for continuing to play a bad hand?

What are the Mayor and the City afraid of? More importantly, where and what are their priorities? In the months since Enrichmond collapsed in June, the Mayor has spent months and paid third-party legal fees to claim ownership of the A.P. Hill statue in Northside while doing nothing in court to secure two historic Black cemeteries that are the resting place of thousands of Richmonders, including Maggie Walker, John Mitchell, Jr., and the Rev. John Andrew Bowler.

Evergreen Cemetery is recognized by the United Nations as “a site of memory” in the UNESCO Slave Route Project. Both Evergreen and East End cemeteries drew the attention of the late Representative Donald McEachin (D-Va.), who introduced the African American Burial Grounds Preservation Act “to establish a program at the National Park Service to provide grant opportunities and technical assistance to local partners to research, identify, survey, and preserve these historic sites.” Further, in the state legislature, Delegate Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, initiated the change to state law in 2017 to ensure the state pays $5 per grave in Evergreen and East End to help offset maintenance costs (the state had been paying $5 for each Confederate grave for decades). Everyone is pitching in to help — except the Mayor and the City.

According to Chris Suarez in the Richmond Times-Dispatch this fall, after months of inaction, McQuinn and Viola Baskerville, a former delegate and Secretary of Administration for Tim Kaine, joined with other community advocates and sent a letter to the Mayor and City Council raising concerns about the status of the cemeteries and urged the City to take action to obtain ownership.

“The national and international significance of these burial grounds demand City stewardship. The City has a Cemeteries Department, and these two cemeteries are the only ones not under the City’s stewardship. This sends the wrong message.”

The letter states that Councilwoman Ann-Frances Lambert is committed to introducing legislation that would advocate for the City’s acquisition of both cemetery properties. It also reminds the Mayor with a question: Stoney has “committed [his] support to both the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground and as well as preserving the African American Burial Ground in Shockoe Bottom. Are these properties any less worthy?”

That’s a really good question which received a really lame answer. Suarez received a firm non-committal pledge from the City that it had “yet to reach a conclusion about next steps. The statement acknowledges that the foundation’s charter has ‘an avenue’ to transfer property to the city but that ‘no action has been taken toward that end.’”

No kidding.

“The City will continue to work with Enrichmond legal representation and friends groups to find every opportunity to provide for support where appropriate as the transition of programs and services is an ongoing effort,” the statement continued. That article was dated September 17, and to date, the City has still not said a word about Enrichmond (but has been in court for months to claim ownership of the Hill statue).

The really sad thing is that people are ready to help make it happen and there are plans and ideas to hit the reset button and fix this situation. Make each of the small “Friends Of” groups that used Enrichmond as their fiduciary whole with the volunteer money they had raised (it’s a drop in the bucket); settle with any creditors and position any remaining assets; identify grants and donors to help with restoration efforts, and protect the cemeteries and begin funding and fundraising for a long-term community-driven Master Plan that the Mayor endorsed at a ceremony in 2020.

Remember Stoney’s quotes? “It is long overdue that we protect these spaces … and it is our commitment as a city that we will step up and do our part,” he said in 2020.

A year earlier at a volunteer event on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he said “Today, we work to restore history together. Today, we celebrate the permanent protection of Evergreen as a sacred public space that represents our shared values of freedom, service and opportunity.”

Was that just dishonest rhetoric for the cameras or was it meant in earnest?

These types of restorations of historic Black cemeteries have occurred all over the South. It was done for 12,000 graves at Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, a 6,000-grave cemetery in Knoxville, TN, and several locations in South Carolina by The Preservation Society of Charleston, just to name a few.

It can (and should) be done here too. The Mayor has to decide if he is more interested in casinos and photo-ops than in protecting and restoring the dignity and respect to those that lived here all their lives and helped lay the foundation for what Richmond is today. I think most of them would be proud of the progress we have made and the direction we are going, incremental though it might be; but they would also probably be more than a little ashamed of the condition in which we have left them while our “leaders” continue to do nothing to correct it.

Jon Baliles is a former Richmond city councilman. This column has been republished with permission from RVA 5X5.