Personality: Rhonda Keyes Pleasants

Spotlight on chair of Family Representative Council of East Marshall Street Well Project

4/25/2024, 6 p.m.
Rhonda Keyes Pleasants entered the funeral industry in 1996 and became a fully licensed funeral director and embalmer in December …

Rhonda Keyes Pleasants entered the funeral industry in 1996 and became a fully licensed funeral director and embalmer in December 2000.

“For me, becoming a mortician was a calling,” Mrs. Pleasants said. “I reached a point in my professional trajectory that it was time for me to answer the call.”

Her journey in the field did not come without its challenges, however.

As a Black female mortician in a male-dominated industry, Mrs. Pleasants, 59, dealt with resistance from her male counterparts, some of whom found humor in her career aspirations.

Mrs. Pleasants did not let such attitudes distract her.

“I have proven myself to be knowledgeable and, because I function with a sense of integrity and grace, I feel very comfortable about who I am and what I do, not just as a Black female but as a person,” she said.

Shirley Jean Moore Keyes, Mrs. Pleasants’ mother, has been her biggest influence and “has always been the one standing at the finish line, waving me in with every endeavor I have attempted,” Mrs. Pleasants said. Her mother also gave her encouragement on her journey to become a mortician.

“When I made the decision to pursue this career, (my mother) very plainly stated, ‘Always carry yourself like a Christian young lady and don’t sell your soul to move ahead in this male-dominated profession,’” Mrs. Pleasants said.

Mrs. Pleasants has managed the Henry W. Dabney Funeral Home in Ashland since 2017.

She also serves as the chair of the Family Representative Council of the East Marshall Street Well Project.

The Well Project was created by Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) to memorialize and rebury the unidentified remains found inside the East Marshall Street well in 1994.

The remains are thought to have been discarded by MCV medical staff in the 1800s.

The Well Project’s planning committee created the Family Representative Council to represent descendants of the unnamed individuals. The council makes recommendations on how to study, memorialize and rebury the remains with dignity. Mrs. Pleasants was selected as the chair of the council through the consensus that she would be the best fit for the role.

VCU has made both public and private apologies for the “wrong that was done” and Mrs. Pleasants said she believes the university is doing its part to remedy the situation. She says the “best and most pressing thing” VCU can do to help is provide funding for reburials of the ancestral remains.

“This is very important work that will not cease when the remains are properly buried,”

Mrs. Pleasants said. “This is a part of history that should be taught and shared for eternity.”

Meet the chair of the Family Representative Council of the East Marshall Street Well Project and this week’s Personality, Rhonda Keyes Pleasants:

Volunteer position: Chair, Family Representative Council of the East Marshall Street Well Project.

Occupation: Licensed funeral director and embalmer.

Date and place of birth: May 30 in Washington, D.C. I was raised in Virginia Beach.

Where I live now: Henrico County.

Education: B.S., office automation management (VCU); A.A.S., funeral services (John Tyler Community College); M.S., disaster science (University of Richmond); and certificate in Christian ministry (Richmond Theological Seminary).

Family: Husband, Charles; two adult children.

East Marshall Street Well Project (EMSWP): A project conceived by Virginia Commonwealth University to address the discovery of remains and artifacts found in a well during the construction of the Kermes A. Kontos Building on the Medical College of Virginia Campus.

Brief history of the EastMarshall Street Well: In1994, physical remains and artifacts were discovered in a mid-19th century well during the construction of the Kontos medical sciences building. The remains were eventually sent to the Smithsonian Institution and then returned to Richmond in November 2019.

Brief description of well discovery: The well contained the skeletal remains of over 50 individuals, including nine children (age 14 and younger). Additionally, these remains are those of African-Americans who were used as cadavers for training and then dumped in the well.

Exact location of where the well was: The well was located 30 feet below ground near the southeast corner of the Kontos building, closest to East Marshall Street. There is a tree with a wrought-iron fence around it in the approximate location on the plaza between the Kontos building and the Egyptian building.

When and how interest resumed about the remains found in the East Marshall Street Well: VCU mobilized a planning committee and a series of community meetings were held to make the public aware of this discovery and create a process for moving forward with research, interment and memorialization.

The Family Representative Council: A group that was convened in August 2015 and charged with “serving as representatives of the descendant community of the remains that were discovered, to make recommendations to the VCUEMSWP Planning Committee to support the appropriate study, memorialization and reburial with dignity.”

The members: Stacy Burrs; Jennifer Early; Lillie A. Estes (deceased); Carmen Foster; Christopher Green; Joseph Jones; Stephanie Smith; Janet “QueenNzinga” Taylor; and myself.

Crystal Noakes served as a member of the FRC as well.

When elected chair of the Family Representative Council: I was humbled that my “family members” trusted me to serve in this role. I knew we had a lot of work to do and that I had some big footsteps to follow from our initial chair, Joseph Jones.

Why this is meaningful to me: Being a mortician, I am a staunch advocate for the dead and the ethical treatment of the dead.

Everyone deserves a decent final disposition, therefore, it is professionally and ethically important that I be an advocate for these, my ancestors.

No. 1 goal and strategy as chair: The answer is simple:


Biggest challenge: Working around and through all the moving pieces of such a large project.

While this is not something that can be completed hastily or without deep thought, I believe at times things could move a little faster. The COVID-19 pandemic played a huge role in the project stalling.

The joy I have witnessed since being a part of the Family Representative Council: Accompanying the ancestral remains back home to Richmond from the Smithsonian in November 2019.

How community members can get involved with the EMSWP:

Keep up with our website, emsw.vcu.edu and watch the newspapers and other media outlets for upcoming events and updates.

Ways I envision ancestral remains being properly celebrated and respected: We plan to incorporate West African burial customs as well as multi-denominational religious customs when burial takes place. Additionally, there will be a physical memorial site established, an education component as well as an annual remembrance.

Expected final memorial and celebration of life of remains: To be determined. This is still in the discovery phase.

Funding of project: Funding will come from VCU since the university acknowledges that during the 19th century and early 1900s the Medical College was a party to less than human treatment of individuals for medical research.

How I start the day: Prayer, scripture, stretching and a big glass of water all give me a sense of grounding and an attitude of “I Can Handle Anything That Comes My Way!”

The three words that best describe me: Driven, organized, deep thinker.

Best late-night snack: Gummy bears.

My music playlist: Roberta Flack, Will Downing and The Winans, to name a few.

A quote that inspires me: Philippians 4:11 – Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatever state I am, therewith to be content.

The best thing my parents taught me: Always act like a lady, tell the truth, and stand for right, even if I have to stand alone.

The person who influenced me the most: My mother, Shirley Jean Moore Keyes.

Book that influenced me the most: “Becoming” by Michelle Obama. Reading her book, I learned that I can do and be anything if I put my mind to it and continue to “become.”

Next goal: To relearn how to play the piano. I learned as a youngster but didn’t practice enough, so I lost the skill.