Fighting to Save African-American Cemeteries

The struggle to reclaim an African burial ground in Richmond, Va., highlights a classic struggle between entrenched interests and efforts to restore the humanity of those who died in bondage.

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Ana Edwards at protest against use of an African burial ground as a parking lot. (Jonathan Pourzal)

For more than 10 years, Richmond, Va.'s oldest municipal burial ground for people of African descent has been covered over by an active parking lot owned by Virginia Commonwealth University. The dead cannot speak, so Richmond's African-American community has been fighting to remove the parking lot and protect its ancestral legacy.

Richmond, former capital of the Confederacy, was one of the largest slave trading centers in the U.S. and a place to which many African Americans can trace their roots. Dead Africans -- free and enslaved -- were buried at Richmond's African Burial Ground between about 1750 and 1814; it was known then as the "Burial Ground for Negroes." This was also the site of the execution of the famous slave rebellion leader Gabriel Prosser. 

The Virginia State Legislature recently passed a bill that transfers the property from VCU to the Richmond City Council's Slave Trail Commission. It becomes law on July 1, 2011, and the university's Board of Visitors is expected to surrender the property on May 23. The university's president and the mayor of Richmond are expected to attend the turnover. Several private contractors have offered to remove the lot's asphalt, free of charge.

However, this transfer has only happened because of constant pressure on VCU and state and local legislators by Richmond's black community. The university had resisted the African-American community's appeals to shut down the parking lot since purchasing it several years ago. The school even ignored its own students' protests. 

A local Richmond organization, the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, has worked for a decade to reclaim the burial ground on behalf of the African-American community. Members led an act of civil disobedience on April 12, 2011 (the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War), by blocking the parking lot's entrance for an hour and a half; four were arrested, charged with trespassing, and given a court date of May 25. "This was important to demonstrate that even though progress has been made, VCU still refuses to close the lot," said DFJE organizer Ana Edwards. "It demonstrates that people were able to park somewhere else."

Dr. Shawn Utsey, chair of the African-American studies department at VCU, says, "The struggle of the community was instrumental … the African Burial Ground [ABG] represents the humanity of African people, so this is an effort to reclaim their humanity … it is long from over." Utsey directed the 2009 award-winning documentary, Meet Me in the Bottom: The Struggle to Reclaim Richmond's African Burial Ground.  

During slavery, cemeteries for African Americans were located in undesirable areas. Many African cultures share the belief that a person's soul lives on after death. Therefore, a burial ground is more than a final resting place; it is a sacred space to be preserved for the use of transitioned souls.

It makes you wonder: Nationwide, how many ABGs are covered and waiting to be found, and where are they? "Every port town or city in the Americas that heavily relied on enslaved labor is likely to have had a municipal cemetery for enslaved Africans," says Michael Blakey, director of the Institute for Historical Biology at William & Mary College, " … But these cemeteries … are in unknown locations and there are no community efforts around them ... " Common factors include a forgotten legacy rediscovered because of construction and a lack of institutional respect for descendents' rights to decide the fate of their ancestors' place of rest.

In recent years, several other ABGs have been discovered, and the ensuing struggles to preserve them have often pitted powerful real estate or political interests against African-American desires to honor the dead.

One example was the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan. During the preliminary phases of putting up a new federal building in the early 1990s, excavators discovered evidence of an 18th-century burial ground. Initially, the GSA, a federal agency, did not inform New York's African-American community of its finding, but news got out and triggered outrage at the casual exhumation of ancestors. 

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