African Burial Ground
The “Burial Ground for Negroes,” as it was titled on an early nineteenth-century map of the city, was the first designated burial spot for the city’s enslaved and free residents of African ancestry. Its origins are not documented, but it presumably came into use at least as early as the burial ground around St. John’s church in the mid-eighteenth century. Its precise location is under dispute, but it sat roughly near the modern intersection of 15th and Broad Streets and Interstate 95, on a steep hillside descending down to the once-exposed Shockoe Creek. Judging from its label on the early map, it appears to have encompassed at least 1.5 acres of ground, comparable to the two acres of ground used by the city’s whites around St. John’s church.
This was poor quality land, and by 1806 it was also the site of the city gallows where convicts were publicly hung. Tanyards adjoined the property, and the city’s powder magazine stood nearby. Any memorials or markers left by survivors have disintegrated with time, or they are covered by many feet of later fill and construction.
Richmond’s black residents vigorously protested the conditions at this “Gallows ground,” or “mock of a grave yard.” When the city delayed, 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 opened another 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 jail on the old site, along with a schoolhouse for the children of poor whites. In 1958, the construction of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike (soon to be incorporated into Interstate 95) devastated the property, and an adjoining parking lot was built over its margins.
Attention to the site was renewed in the 1990s, through the work of local historian Elizabeth Kambourian, who “rediscovered” the burial ground on historic maps. Groups of activists, including the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, and the Slave Trail Commission of the Richmond City Council, then began working to recognize the site and properly commemorate it. Amid the controversy, the state Department of Historic Resources undertook a study in 2008 which concluded that a portion of the original burial ground may have extended beyond Interstate 95 to the parking lot, then owned by Virginia Commonwealth University. In 2011, Governor Bob McDonnell made state funds available to purchase the 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 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.
The burial ground site is quiet today. It is something of an “in-between” space, resting as an important spot on the city’s historical Slave Trail yet also awaiting the outcome of big plans for the area.
Podcast for Solomon (co-conspirator with his brother, Gabriel, leader of the 1800 slave conspiracy), who was executed in 1800, by Mina McGinn and Travis Schmidt:
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:
“African American Burial Grounds: Rediscovering the Past, A Template for the Future,” by Brendan Elliott, 2011, a paper reviewing the site’s history and comparing its restoration with that of sites in New York City, Philadelphia, and Alexandria.
For more information, see:
Veronica Davis, Here I Lay My Burdens Down: A History of the Black Cemeteries of Richmond, Virginia (Richmond: Dietz Press, 2000)
Jeffrey Ruggles, “The Burial Ground: An Early African-American Site in Richmond: Notes on its History and Location,” 2009, http://www.scribd.com/doc/42051809/Burial-Ground-Ruggles-12-09
Department of Historic Resources, Virginia, “Burial Ground for Negroes, Richmond, Virginia: Validation and Assessment,” by Christopher M. Stevenson, June 2008.
Shawn Utsey, “Meet Me in the Bottom,” documentary film, 2009
The Defenders’ Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project
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 dissertation, College of William and Mary, 2014