African Burial Ground

The “Burial Ground for Negroes,” as it was titled on a map of the city in 1809, was the first designated burial spot for the city’s enslaved and free residents of African ancestry. Its origins are not documented, but it came into use in relation to the whites-only burial ground around St. John’s church sometime in the eighteenth century. The burial ground may have begun as late as 1799, when the city purchased an irregularly-shaped lot from Philip Turpin on the eastern flank of Shockoe Hill descending down to Shockoe Creek. It sat roughly north of the modern intersection of 15th and Broad Streets and Interstate 95, and judging from its label on the early map, it appears to have encompassed at least 1.5 acres of ground.

This was poor quality land, subject to runoff down the steep hill. By 1785 the city’s powder magazine sat on that hillside, as there were no surrounding developments at risk of an accidental explosion there. The grounds would also host the city gallows where convicts were publicly hung in the years after 1806. Prior to that year, the location of the city’s “usual place of execution” was unsettled, apparently standing for a time previously on “Gallows Hill” near First and Cary Streets where another burial place sat nearby.

Along Shockoe Creek, burials at the municipal site spread up the western bank without the benefit of an enclosure like that around the churchyard. Any memorials or markers left by survivors have disintegrated with time, or they are covered by many feet of later fill and construction.

As early as 1810, Richmond’s Black residents vigorously protested the conditions at this “Gallows ground,” or “mock of a grave yard.” At that time, the city council reexamined the site, directing a survey of private land adjoining what it called “the negro burying ground.” When no further response took place, free Black residents organized in 1815 to purchase land for a new burial ground on the north side of town. Their private site would become known as the Barton Heights cemeteries.

The following year, in 1816, the city finally opened a new burial site consisting of “one acre for the free people of colour, and one for slaves in the City” to the northwest on Shockoe Hill. This effectively closed Shockoe Bottom’s “Burial Ground for Negroes” to further burials. The city then built a schoolhouse for the children of poor whites on the old site and later a jail, as development continued. Shockoe Creek was diverted east and eventually routed underground. After more decades of infill, the construction of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike (soon to be incorporated into Interstate 95) in 1958 devastated the property.

Attention to the site was renewed in the 1990s. The Elegba Folklore Society, founded around that time by Janine Bell, helped initiate an annual nightime walk through the city along the trail of enslaved Africans through Shockoe Bottom. Prompted by such programming, the city established a Slave Trail Commission in 1998 to help preserve the history of slavery by identifying and marking key sites along that trail. In turn, those efforts dovetailed with the work of local historian Elizabeth Kambourian, who identified the site of the burial ground on historic maps. Kambourian was able to georeference the historic maps with the modern landscape, pointing to its apparent location beneath I-95 and portions of a parking lot near Virginia Commonwealth University’s medical campus. Groups of activists, including the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, then sought to recognize the site and properly commemorate it. Amid the controversy, the state Department of Historic Resources undertook a study in 2008 which generally confirmed Kambourian’s findings, concluding that a portion of the original burial ground may have extended beyond Interstate 95 to the adjoining parking lot recently acquired by Virginia Commonwealth University. In 2011, Governor Bob McDonnell made state funds available to purchase the 3.4-acre lot from VCU and transfer the historic property to the City of Richmond. After the parking lot was removed, activists placed artwork and signage there and rechristened it the “African Burial Ground.”

Proposals for a new baseball stadium and commercial complex adjoining this land in Shockoe Bottom were repeatedly raised and defeated, most recently in 2014. In the midst of protests against these proposals, the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality led a series of community conversations to develop an alternative vision for the Bottom, given its place as the center of the city’s nineteenth-century slave trade. The city government pivoted to pursue parallel commemoration plans, and in 2016, Mayor Dwight Jones announced that planning firms had been commissioned to begin this work starting with the old Lumpkin’s slave jail site across Broad Street from the burial ground.

In 2018, Jones’s successor Mayor Levar Stoney participated in the Rose Center for Public Leadership’s fellowship program which brought renewed momentum for a wider planning process in Shockoe Bottom. In 2019, Stoney announced the formation of the Shockoe Alliance, attempting to bring together the various stakeholders to develop a shared vision for the historic area. By 2024, the slow-moving initiative had gathered $38 million in funding from a variety of sources, including the Mellon Foundation. In February 2024, the team assembled for the initiative, now titled the Shockoe Project, finally put forward a comprehensive plan for a 10-acre memorial park with an interpretive center (titled, inevitably, the Shockoe Institute) in the Main Street Station train shed.

Amid all this preparation, today the burial ground remains something of an “in-between” space, resting as an important spot on the city’s historical Trail of Enslaved Africans yet also awaiting the outcome of big plans for the area.

Podcast for Nanny (wife of Prosser’s Gabriel), who died sometime in the early nineteenth century and whose burial site is unknown, by Crystal Couser, Jennifer Galicia, and Amira Kamara:

For more information, see:

The Defenders’ Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project

Shawn Utsey, “Meet Me in the Bottom: The Struggle to Reclaim Richmond’s African Burial Ground,” documentary film, 2009

Veronica Davis, Here I Lay My Burdens Down: A History of the Black Cemeteries of Richmond, Virginia (Richmond: Dietz Press, 2000)

Department of Historic Resources, Virginia, “Burial Ground for Negroes, Richmond, Virginia: Validation and Assessment,” by Christopher M. Stevenson, June 2008.

Jeffrey Ruggles, “The Burial Ground: An Early African-American Site in Richmond: Notes on its History and Location,” 2009

Bryan Clark Green and Matthew R. Laird, “The ‘Burial Ground for Negroes’ Site, City of Richmond, Virginia: An Historical and Archaeological Analysis,” unpublished paper, 2012

Mai-Linh K. Hong, “‘Get Your Asphalt Off My Ancestors!’: Reclaiming Richmond’s African Burial Ground,” Law, Culture and the Humanities, 2013

Autumn Rain Duke Barrett, “Honoring the Ancestors: Historical Reclamation and Self-Determined Identities in Richmond and Rio de Janeiro,” PhD diss., College of William and Mary, 2014

Gibson Worsham, “The Location of Richmond’s First African-American Burial Ground,” 2015

Ellen L. Chapman, “Buried Beneath the River City: Investigating an Archaeological Landscape and its Community Value in Richmond, Virginia,” Ph.D. diss., College of William & Mary, 2018