Disappearing the enslaved

How do tens of thousands of people disappear?

Authorities in the city of Richmond have honed this process. Today, the second African Burial Ground, also known as the Potters field, is again being edged out.

The old graveyard began at the northeastern corner of Fifth and Hospital Streets in 1816, and it received the bodies of a majority of the city’s enslaved residents through emancipation in 1865. Afterward, African American burials continued in the expanding grounds until the city closed them to further interments in 1879, shifting the majority of black burials to Oakwood Cemetery, or for those who could afford it, to the Barton Heights cemeteries. The city effaced the site through a series of projects, including construction of powder magazines and roads, before turning it over to private hands for an automobile service station in the twentieth century. There has been no signage or markers recognizing its importance as a site of memory for the thousands of burials there.

In 2013, archaeologist Emily Calhoun prepared a study of the site on behalf of the Virginia Department of Transportation as the agency made preparations for an Interstate 64 widening project on the borders of the grounds to the east. The study entailed a number of archaeological trenches dug beneath the interstate which turned up minimal findings. So Calhoun documented “no evidence of interments” or nineteenth-century artifacts in that project area.

In 2018, the DC to Richmond high-speed rail project undertook a similar study for its work. The new rail line would run along the floor of the valley to the north and bend around the eastern portion of the site. Its georeferenced maps show intrusion on the historic edges of the burial ground. But the report filed by its cultural resource firm, Dovetail, concluded that there would be no intrusion on the old burial ground, apparently using Calhoun’s earlier report and the tighter boundaries from an 1835 map as justification. It paid little heed to post-1835 maps showing an increasingly broadening site. The Virginia Department of Historic Resources signed off on the findings.

Since then, a descendant of one of the interments there has presented Dovetail, the Department of Historic Resources, and area officials with a raft of evidence for the site’s presence and importance. In the midst of these studies, this descendant discovered that the city had scheduled an auction of the private property at Fifth and Hospital Streets for back taxes, and Councilwoman Ellen Robertson stepped in to halt the sale. So the site is currently in legal limbo, even as the rail project appears to have been authorized to proceed.

The intrusion of these transportation projects onto the abused grounds will further erode the memory of this essential element of the city’s history. For every step forward like the recovery of the African Burial Ground, there is another sobering reminder of our willngness to ignore the legacy of slavery.

One response to “Disappearing the enslaved”

  1. RyanSmith Avatar

    An update: today the managers of the railroad project (the Virginia Department of Rail/Public Transportation and Dovetail Cultural Resource Group) hosted an informational meeting at the site. There was a good turnout, including nearly thirty attendees representing VCU, VDOT, the Historic Richmond Foundation, the archaeological community, the Defenders, the city of Richmond, a journalist, and others. In preparation for the meeting, the project managers circulated a historical timeline for the site, showing the research they had accumulated to date. In it and at the meeting, they proposed 3 “commitments”:
    1) they would undertake extensive research on the site, including archival research, oral history, and 3D geospatial modeling of the surrounding grounds, in order to present the public with more resources on its story;
    2) they would undertake archaeological testing in all areas of possible disturbance, and if any graves were found, would be amenable to altering the plans;
    3) they would provide an on-site archaeologist during all potentially destructive construction activities to ensure proper response to any finds that emerge that were missed in step two.
    “We want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem,” said one representative of the Virginia Department of Transportation. The Cultural Resource Management firm’s representative also acknowledged that the importance of this site is the story of its earlier destruction as much as it is the story of a cemetery.
    And as archaeologist Steve Thompson observes, it is still unclear how any of this relates to the project’s previous authorization by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. The whole process will play out over the next ten years, so nothing is happening very fast.