Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground

The Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground today, with Interstate 64 in the background.

The city’s second African burial ground, now known as the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground, has a complex history. In 1816, following protests by free people of color in Richmond, the city finally closed the “Burial Ground for Negroes” in Shockoe Bottom and opened a new burial ground on the northern edge of town for the city’s Black residents. It would consist of “one acre for the free people of colour, and one for slaves in the City.”

The site was located near the poorhouse, at the terminus of Fifth Street, on a sloping hillside within view of what would be called the Barton Heights Cemeteries. A few months later, Hebrew Cemetery would open on the opposite side of Fifth Street.

The new graveyard lacked a formal name, titled simply “Grave Yard for Free People of Color” and “For Slaves” on an 1835 map. An 1848 map named it generally the “Burying-ground for Coloured persons” without any reference to the original division between free and enslaved. In 1853, another map acknowledged its title as the “Afr[ica]n Bur[yin]g Ground,” the second of its kind in the city. There is no evidence that the grounds were enclosed, though the city did furnish initial landmarks to outline the property. The keeper of the poorhouse had responsibility for its oversight, and its grounds came to be administered as the segregated component of Shockoe Hill Cemetery. The powder magazine was relocated nearby to the south, in an arrangement similar to the initial burial ground along Shockoe Creek, and a series of gallows followed as well.

In the 1840s, city authorities recognized the need to enlarge this African Burying Ground on Shockoe Hill. Around that time, one official counted thirty-four adults and sixteen children interred in the site over a single month, with the city’s overall Black population rising above 9,400. Surely many thousands of burials had already accumulated in the two small acres and its overruns around the hillside. So in 1848, the city council directed a committee to inquire into procuring another “Burial ground for free persons of colour and slaves,” which apparently came to fruition two years later when the committee recommended enlarging the “Burying Ground on Shockoe hill” by fourteen acres. Five of those acres were intended for “the present Burying Ground for white persons,” or what is today called Shockoe Hill Cemetery. The committee directed that “The remaining nine acres, including the Hospital grounds,” referring to a city hospital that had been built adjacent Shockoe Hill Cemetery’s walls, were “to be enclosed with a plank fence and to be used as far as practicable, as a Burying ground for coloured persons.” Thus the latter expanded to the southwest across Hospital Street.

The original two-acre site and its expansion continued in use for decades. Laws passed in the wake of Nat Turner’s rebellion of 1831 severely restricted the ability of enslaved Richmonders to conduct their own funerals at these burial grounds. Nevertheless, Frederick Law Olmsted witnessed a moving funeral there in 1853 during his tour of the South. One Sunday afternoon he followed “a negro funeral procession” led by “a decent hearse” and coaches to observe several dozen black men and women arrive “a desolate place, where a dozen colored people were already engaged heaping the earth over the grave of a child.” Olmsted described those heaping the earth as singing, in his loaded words, “a wild kind of chant.” Olmsted then noticed that a new grave had been dug immediately alongside that of the child. Both lay “near the foot of a hill, in a crumbling bank—the ground below being already occupied, and the graves apparently advancing in terraces up the hill-side.” At the conclusion of the event, the mourners filled the grave and marked it “with two small branches hung with withered leaves… which were stuck, one at the head, the other at the foot of the grave.”

The names of such burials were recorded in a few quarterly interment reports that survive from the following decade, beginning in 1862 during the war years. These reports titled the site the “Shockoe Hill Burying Ground” for “Blacks” and they were filed alongside comparable reports for the walled section designated for whites, showing the ongoing relationship between the two. Prior to these reports, interments in the African portions of the grounds had totaled around 430 annually, and those numbers roughly doubled once the Civil War began. At the same time, Confederate authorities buried at least five hundred Union prisoners of war amid the African American burials around the city hospital, where they remained until the soldiers were removed to Richmond National Cemetery following the war.

On the eve of emancipation in 1865, Confederate authorities exploded the nearby powder magazine in their retreat from the city, and the explosion damaged many of the surrounding graves.

After the Civil War, city directories listed the burial ground as the “African” cemetery. By the later 1870s, maps began labeling the still-active site as the “Potter’s Field,” a traditional term for burial places for the anonymous and the poor, suggesting that most Black residents who could afford it chose to be buried in the Barton Heights Cemeteries. Maps show an expansion of the African Burying Ground site to the north of Hebrew Cemetery down the hill to a creek.

Graverobbers serving multiple medical schools preyed on the grounds for decades. Reports of such graverobbing surfaced as early as 1832, when the keeper of the poorhouse complained to city council that over the previous six months, “not less than sixteen persons have been disinterred in the Burying ground near the Poor house, appropriated for the coloured population and paupers.” Authorities turned a blind eye to the practice, which accelerated after the founding the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond in 1838. By 1880, the Richmond Daily Dispatch could report that “When the colored paupers and others were buried on the hillside north and east of the Hebrew Cemetery they generally fell into the hands of the resurrectionists. That ground was used for more than fifty years, and of interments made in recent years very few skeletons will now be found in the graves.” The latter point was a great exaggeration, but it spoke to well-known practices.

F. W. Beers, Illustrated Atlas of the City of Richmond (Richmond: Beers, 1876)

As late as 1878, the city recorded an annual tally of 324 African American interments there. But the superintendent had seen enough. One year prior, he had reported to the city council that “that portion of the cemetery allotted to the colored poor is by its locality and arrangements (being an unenclosed field) illy fitted for a burial-place, and its now overcrowded condition renders it impossible to make any interment therein without disturbing some previous burial, thus making it both repulsive and inhuman.”

In 1879 the city council finally acted on this advice and halted burials in the full site. It directed future interments to segregated sections in Oakwood Cemetery on the city’s eastern edge. This closed a chapter on the burial ground’s at least 22,000 graves.

In turn, the city moved to repurpose the site. In the 1880s, the city regraded Fifth Street, exposing “some of the dead bodies and bones” and then using them as fill. In 1890, developers constructed a viaduct, or bridge, across the valley at Fifth Street, cutting the street north through the graveyard and obliterating the hillside. The Richmond Planet‘s editor John Mitchell, Jr., shamed the “people who profited by the desecration of the burial ground on Poor-house Hill, North 5th Street when graves were dug into, bones scattered, coffins exposed, and the hearts of the surviving families made to bleed by the desecration of the remains of their loved ones.” To the south, the old expansion grounds surrounding the city hospital were sold for Hebrew Cemetery’s own expansion in 1911.

In the 1930s, the city replaced the Fifth Street Viaduct with a reinforced concrete bridge, further disturbing the ground, renaming it the “Stonewall Jackson Memorial Bridge.”

But the site’s signal destruction came in the 1950s.  In 1958, the municipal director of parks and recreation who had oversight of the city’s cemeteries requested the city assessor’s office to draw up a sketch of the “Paupers Burying Ground” at Hospital and Fifth Streets. The resulting sketch showed only a small triangle of property on the northeast corner, apparently discounting any potential graves beyond the lot. The parks director acknowledged that when authorities had earlier attempted to clear the area on the southeast corner of this intersection, they had been “instructed not to disturb it because bodies had been interred there.” But in spite of all the evidence he found that “this has not been substantiated by the records,” and he allowed a dog pound to be built south of Hospital Street.

map prepared by city employees in 1958 in preparation for the site’s rezoning

In 1959, Richmond city council took steps against the north side of Hospital Street. Following one meeting on October 12, the Richmond News Leader reported that “City Council last night rezoned for Industrial use an eroded hillside at Fifth and Hospital [streets] that was once set aside as a Negro burying ground — one acre for slaves and for freed Negroes. Records, said city officials, fail to disclose whether it was ever used for the purposes for which it was designated.” It was a startling conclusion. Yet it aligned with the decades-long campaign against the burying ground. After rezoning, the city sold the remaining northeast corner lot to the Sun Oil Company, allowing for the 1960 construction of the automobile service station. The station’s sole remains can be seen there today. Over the decades the service station changed hands to eventually become known as Talley’s Auto Center.

In 2013, the Virginia Department of Transportation investigated the grounds to clear a path for the proposed widening of Interstate 64 to the east. A few shallow test trenches beneath the interstate revealed no remaining evidence of burials. Shortly thereafter, researchers with another initiative, the DC to Richmond high-speed rail project, investigated the site in preparation for plans to widen railway lines across this property. Those researchers determined that a portion of the hillside might contain intact burials, and they formally recorded the burial ground with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources in 2018 as the “Grave Yard for Free People of Color and Slaves.” In reviewing the above plans, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources took a restricted view of the site’s boundaries and issued determinations that both projects would have “no adverse effect” on it.

Complicating matters further, the old service station was seized by the city in 2018 for back taxes and slated for public auction. At that point, a descendant with ties to the burial ground stepped forward. Working from her home in Texas, Lenora McQueen traced at least three family members to the burial ground, and she pointed the city’s attention to the historic nature of the grounds, halting the auction. In December 2020, following intense lobbying by McQueen, Richmond’s city council approved an ordinance sponsored by Mayor Levar Stoney providing for the city’s purchase (reacquisition, really) of the service station property at 1305 N. 5th Street, or just over an acre of the original footprint of the burial ground.

Lenora McQueen’s projection of the full extent of the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground, along with the boundaries of 1305 N. 5th Street in red

At the same time, McQueen continued researching the site, and she assembled a team to draft a National Register for Historic Places nomination to achieve federal recognition of the site. In June 2022, the team’s completed nomination for the Shockoe Hill Burying Ground Historic District, which centers the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground as a contributing property, was approved and officially listed on the National Register, following its listing on the Virginia Landmarks Register. That same week, a public ceremony was held to unveil the state historic highway marker for the burying ground. The event was a powerful affirmation of McQueen’s work and the site’s broader allies. “It’s a good beginning,” McQueen observed that day.

That momentum continued to the end of 2022, when Mayor Stoney introduced a city ordinance to accept two parcels totalling 1.5 acres along Seventh Street — within the historic boundaries of the burying ground — offered by their current private owner “for the purpose of a connector between the Shockoe Hill Burying Ground Historic District and the proposed Enslaved African Heritage Campus in the city of Richmond.”

So the city and the broader community now turn toward the challenge of memorialization, while the struggle for the site’s recognition continues.

Livi Booker reads the state historic highway marker text at its unveiling on June 12, 2022

While those plans took shape, in late 2023, the city painted a stark mural on the outside of the shell of the old gas station on the grounds, with language pointing to it as the place where “an estimated 22,000 Free and Enslaved African Americans are interred.” And in early 2024, Lenora McQueen sparked a campaign against the billboard standing on the grounds that resulted in the darkening of its two panels.

For more information, see:

Ryan K. Smith, “Disappearing the Enslaved: The Destruction and Recovery of Richmond’s Second African Burial Ground,” Buildings & Landscapes 27 (Spring 2020): 17-45

L. Daniel Mouer, Lenora McQueen, Ryan K. Smith, Steve Thompson, National Register of Historic Places nomination for the Shockoe Hill Burying Ground Historic District, 2022

Jeremy M. Lazarus, “One woman’s crusade brings attention to long-forgotten Black cemetery,” Richmond Free Press, March 6, 2020

Lenora McQueen, “Honoring Ancestors,” Style Weekly, October 20, 2020

Descendant Works to Reclaim Virginia African American Burial Ground,” CBS Mornings, June 17, 2022

Hannah Jane Brown, Buried: Historic Resuscitations and Design Scenarios at the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground, Richmond, Virginia (Master’s thesis, University of Virginia, 2022)

Gregory S. Schneider, “Where’s Kitty Cary? The answer unlocked Black history Richmond tried to hide,” Washington Post, October 28, 2022