Teen’s school project: Clear an unruly garden
While her eighth-grade classmates at Freedom Middle School in Spotsylvania County were in class Monday morning, Mekayla Walter was cutting through the abundant overgrowth covering the abandoned Spirit of Freedom Exhibit Garden.
The garden—the only completed portion of the U.S. National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg’s Celebrate Virginia South—has been sitting vacant and untended since 2011 when the museum filed for bankruptcy.
It sits on the 38 acres the Silver Cos. donated in Celebrate Virginia for the museum in 2002. The museum opened the Spirit of Freedom Exhibit Garden on the site in 2007 but never started construction of a building.
It also stopped paying real estate taxes on the property.
Because of that, Fredericksburg city officials are seeking to take possession of the property because the delinquent tax bill has reached more than $300,000.
Mekayla didn’t know the history of the plans for the museum or the garden until she and her father, Timothy Walter II, stumbled upon it in January and decided it was too important to let deteriorate.
She thought repairing and maintaining it would be a great Governor’s School entrance project for Riverbend High School.
Mekayla, who is biracial, said that heritage was part of the reason she wanted to fix up the garden.
“This is really important to me,” Mekayla said. “It tells the story of half of me, and I think everyone should know what happened.”
Her father said he wanted to share black history with Mekayla.
“Being a Caucasian male, I’m not able to share in that part of her heritage.” he said. “I wanted to help her experience this.”
“It was saddening because it was supposed to be a part of a museum,” Mekayla said. “The fact that they forgot about it made me really sad. I wish they would have done something about it sooner.”
They researched the site and worked to get access to the garden from former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder, who began the National Slavery Museum project.
After a month of letter-writing and calling, they finally received a letter from Wilder allowing them to access the site.
The 13-year-old cleared debris from the garden with help from her parents, her brother and five volunteers from her father’s landscaping company, Liberty Lawn and Landscaping.
Walter donated lifetime upkeep from his company for the site.
City Council member Bea Paolucci, who helped the family contact Wilder, spent about three hours at the site Monday to help clean.
“I wish more people would get involved in projects like this,” she said. “To me, it’s a crying shame that it was allowed to deteriorate.”
Mekayla said the overgrowth was overwhelming when they arrived at 7:30 a.m. Monday.
“I was almost scared to walk in,” she said. “Thorns were grown up everywhere.”
By noon they had cut it all back, trimmed the plants and righted overturned statues.
They discovered a patio, a walkway, pavers and statues that were not visible earlier in the day.
“It was exhausting,” Mekayla said. “But it feels like I’m contributing to history. We’re changing what everyone sees.”
Walter has someone coming to repair the broken fences around the garden and fix the lights.
He also will be repairing broken panels, markers and benches, installing new sod and flowers and sealing the walkways.
The family will return every two weeks for routine maintenance and said they’ll focus energy on specific projects such as restoring statues or new landscaping each time.
Mekayla also celebrated her mother Ayanna Walter’s 36th birthday while cleaning the site.
She said it was a good way to spend a birthday.
“This garden is a wonderful thought and a shame to go to waste,” Ayanna said.
Mekayla said she just hopes people will visit once the site is clean and repaired.
“I really hope they visit,” she said. “They wouldn’t have built this if it wasn’t important.”
Lindley Estes: 540/735-1976