The Potter’s field 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 for blacks on the northern edge of town. It would consist of “one acre for the free people of colour, and one for slaves in the City, belonging to the Corporation,” or city government.
The site was located near the poor house, directly east of Hebrew Cemetery at the terminus of Fifth Street, on a sloping hillside within view of what would be called the Barton Heights Cemeteries. The new graveyard lacked a formal name, titled simply “Grave Yard for Free People of Color” and “For Slaves” on an 1835 map. However, in 1853, another map acknowledged its title as the “the “Afr[ican] Bur[ial] 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.
In the 1840s, city authorities recognized the need to enlarge this second African Burial Ground. Around this time, one official counted thirty-four adults and sixteen children interred in the site over a single month, with the city’s black population rising above 9,400. Earlier, during a cholera epidemic, officials had counted 356 black interments there in a single six-week period. 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,” and this apparently came to fruition two years later. The council enclosed the grounds of the city hospital (which had been built to the south, across Hospital Street), “to be used as far as practicable, as a Burying ground for coloured persons.”
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.” The newly arrived group lowered their pine coffin into the earth and joined in prayers and songs. 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 registers that survive from the following decade, beginning in 1862 during the war years, now held by the Library of Virginia.
Destruction at the grounds heralded the arrival of emancipation. In 1865, Confederate authorities exploded the nearby powder magazine in their retreat from the city. Erupting directly across Hospital Street from the second African Burial Ground, the explosion caused damage to the surrounding graves.
After the Civil War, city directories listed the burial ground as the “African” cemetery. By the 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.
Graverobbers serving multiple medical schools preyed on the grounds for decades. The city further desecrated the site with the construction of a viaduct across it in 1891. The old expansion grounds surrounding the city hospital were sold for Hebrew Cemetery’s own expansion in 1911. In the 1950s, city authorities rezoned the original acreage and sold it to private hands to allow a Sun Oil automobile service station to open atop the hill. The station’s sole remains can be seen there today as it awaits a champion for the memory of those interred beneath.