Second African Burial Ground on the rise

Two enormously promising developments have occurred lately to shift the prospects and recognition for the second African Burial Ground (aka the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground aka the Burial Ground for Free People of Colour and Slaves). Recall that the burial ground opened in 1816 by the city of Richmond for the burial of black residents and then extended its troubled history until 1879, after which it was systematically demolished by hostile city forces.

First, a team of researchers led by archaeologist Dan Mouer and researcher/descendant Lenora McQueen, and including myself, Ellen Chapman, and Steve Thompson, drafted a Preliminary Information Form to have the burial ground recognized as part of the Shockoe Hill Burying Ground Historic District by the state architecture review board, which could lead to its placement on the National Register of Historic Places and thereby garner broader federal/state recognition. At the state’s quarterly architecture review meeting in September 2020, the P.I.F. was unanimously endorsed and the National Register is now being written with Dan Mouer as lead author. It was an exciting affirmation of years of work by so many.

And yesterday, September 29, 2020, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney announced his plan to introduce an ordinance to the upcoming city council meeting that would expand the scope for the Heritage Center/Lumpkin’s Jail/Devil’s Half Acre project in Shockoe Bottom and extend the related Slave Trail up to 1305 North 5th Street, the original core of the second African Burial Ground. The new ordinance and its related funding would allow for the city’s acquisition of the core of that beleaguered site, which has been used recently as an automobile service station alongside other encroaching enterprises and roadways.

Here is the language of the proposed ordinance: “Ordinance No. 2020-213 To amend Ord. No. 2020-051, adopted May 11, 2020, which (i) accepted a program of proposed Capital Improvement Projects for Fiscal Year 2020-2021 and the four fiscal years thereafter, (ii) adopted a Capital Budget for Fiscal Year 2020-2021, and (iii) determined a means of financing the same, to modify the purpose of the Heritage Center / Lumpkin’s Jail (Devil’s Half Acre) project in the Economic and Community Development category to provide that the scope of such project consists of design and construction of a pavilion and museum at the Lumpkin’s Jail / Devil’s Half Acre site, the design of and improvements to the Richmond Slave Trail and Trail Head at Ancarrow’s Landing, the extension of the Slave Trail to 1305 North 5th Street, the acquisition of the property known as 1305 North 5th Street due to that property’s historical significance associated with its use as the Burial Grounds for Free People of Colour and Slaves, and the planning activities for the proposed Heritage Center in Shockoe Bottom.”

The acquisition of the site by the city, with proper commemoration, is precisely what the site’s advocates have been seeking. The site is essential in understanding the city’s history and the memory of slavery. Even so, Lenora McQueen in particular is concerned that the city’s acquisition of property there is conceived too narrowly, given that the site overran its original boundaries early on and extended to the north, west, south, and east over the course of the nineteenth century. McQueen is the prime mover and authority here, as the press release recognizes: “Were it not for the tireless advocacy of Lenora McQueen, the city would not be striving to acquire the property and recognize its importance.”

As these details get sorted out, I urge residents to encourage city council members to back this ordinance. This site is overdue for some good news.

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