The Crest of Shockoe Hill

What a profound week for the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground.

It began on Sunday, June 12, with the unveiling of the state historical highway marker at the corner of Fifth and Hospital Streets. The marker was sponsored by the Department of Historic Resources, and it may possibly be the first official signage that the long-serving burying ground has ever had. With a nice headline in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, descendant and champion Lenora McQueen called the sign and event “A good beginning.”

The event felt like a family reunion, gathering so many longtime friends, advocates, and supporters together. The event program (updated) can be found here: Shockoe Marker program, featuring the Swansboro Elementary School choir, Councilwoman Ellen Robertson, Mayor Levar Stoney, Lenora McQueen, Dr. Colita Fairfax, and others (including me). Ana Edwards did a lovely job as MC. A few days of helpful news coverage followed the event.

On Monday, June 13, the Richmond City Council approved Ordinance 2022-157 to provide significant funding (up to $500,000) for “the planning, design, and implementation of the memorialization of the property known as 1305 North 5th Street due to the property’s historical significance associated with its use as the Burial Grounds for Free People of Colour and Slaves” (as well as for “the relocation, stabilization, renovation, and interpretation of the Winfree Cottage, the home of an enslaved woman,” currently sitting at a temporary home in Shockoe Bottom near the Lumpkin’s Jail site).

Then, on Friday, June 17, CBS Mornings, the daily national news program, ran a feature report on Lenora McQueen and the history of the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground. It was part of a series conducted by reporter Rodney Hawkins and his team, starting with Hawkins’s own experiences reclaiming his ancestral burial ground in east Texas. In the feature, Lenora told her story with grace, power, and personality for a large national audience. The whole piece pointed to the groundswell of movement toward recognition for such sites.

And finally, by mid-day that same Friday, our friends at the Department of Historic Resources let us know that the National Park Service had officially listed the Shockoe Hill Burying Ground Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places, culminating a long journey with co-authors Dan Mouer and Steve Thompson with Lenora and me (and supported by others including Ana Edwards and DHR staff). I offered a reflection to our university press office:

There are two cemeteries listed on the National Register of Historic Places in the neighborhood of Richmond’s Fifth and Hospital Streets, but a bigger burying ground of enormous significance adjoining those two has gone unrecognized by preservationists for too long. We are gratified that our nomination for the Shockoe Hill Burying Ground Historic District restores recognition for these intertwined sites. With the inclusion of the once-erased Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground, this new register listing can offer a national model for the listing of similarly disadvantaged sites, and it can hopefully offer a measure of protection that this site and others like it deserve and sorely need.

The whole week pointed to better days to come for the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground and indeed for this entire historic district. What a privilege to be a part of this week.