By Katherine Coates, Larisa Robinson and Destiny Shelton
Capital News Service
RICHMOND — The Virginia Historical Society’s “Unknown No Longer” slave names database is just one of the steps toward connecting today’s African-Americans to their past. But sometimes giving a voice to the past is not simply a click away.
Since its discovery in 2008, the African Burial Ground in Richmond has been a controversial topic. Now, a community group is doing everything it can to give the burial ground the respect it deserves.
The Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality is made of individuals active in issues such as politics, race and sexism. They have worked to maintain Richmond’s black history.
The Defenders’ most recent project has been the African Burial Ground, where slaves and/or free blacks were interred in what is now Shockoe Bottom. The group created a special committee to seek recognition and dignity for the African Burial Ground.
The Defenders aren’t the only ones looking out for black history in Richmond.
The Richmond Slave Trail Commission was started by Richmond City Council in 1998 to shed light on the history of slavery in Richmond. The commission recently erected markers designating a trail of key sites related to the city’s role in the slave trade.
Delegate Delores L. McQuinn, who chairs the commission, said the slave trail means a hidden story is finally being told. She said it means bringing balance to the history of Richmond, and to the people who have been forgotten or unidentified.
“It symbolizes perseverance and fortitude of people who were determined, even though they were considered less than or almost nonexistent other than for labor and economic purposes,” McQuinn said.
Besides unveiling the slave trail markers, the commission continues to work with the Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality on the burial ground.
Shockoe Bottom is known for its bar scene. The burial ground was discovered during a ground survey that connected modern urban structures with historical maps. Two of the maps showed a space called “The Burial Ground for Negroes.”
Historians believe the burial ground was in use from 1786-1819. Because the word slave does not appear in the title on the map, many think the burial site was used not for slaves but for free blacks.
After it was discovered, the Virginia Department of Historical Resources compiled an assessment of the burial grounds. The department hypothesized that a piece of the burial ground lies beneath a Virginia Commonwealth University parking lot. Since this discovery, community groups have been calling for VCU to remove the parking lot.
The site received recognition this year when it was included among the 17 slave trail markers erected by the City Council. However, the Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality want more for the burial ground. They believe the parking lot should be removed so the site can be properly commemorated.
On April 10, prominent public officials spoke at the unveiling of the slave trail markers. The speakers included Gov. Bob McDonnell, Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones and representatives of the Richmond Slave Trail Commission.
Many people used the opportunity to protest VCU’s continued use of the African Burial Ground as a parking lot.
On April 12, just days after the markers went up, eight Defenders stood in the parking lot, calling for VCU to shut down the lot. The group’s vigil began at 6:30 a.m., as VCU employees were arriving for work.
Because they were blocking the parking lot, four of the Defenders were arrested and face a trial date in late May. The group has started an online petition to tell VCU to get its “ass-fault” off the burial ground. Currently, the petition has more than 250 signatures.
McDonnell raised the issue of the African Burial Ground at the slave trail celebration. He announced that he would sign a bill to transfer the property from VCU to the city of Richmond.
“Working together with the mayor as I have over these last few months and years, and with the leadership at VCU, we will do everything possible to tear up this asphalt as soon as possible and properly restore this site,” McDonnell said.
Professor Shawn Utsey, who chairs VCU’s Department of African-American Studies, said that the governor’s announcement is progress and that things are moving in the right direction. But Utsey said more should be done.
Utsey feels passionately about the burial ground. He is a member of the Slave Trail Commission and creator of a documentary, “Meet Me in the Bottom: The Struggle to Reclaim Richmond’s African Burial Ground.”
“The way I was raised, you didn’t park your car – in fact, you didn’t walk – on a grave site unless you were going to see somebody whom you had lost. But even then … you would walk very carefully and show respect,” Utsey said.
He compared the situation to parking a car on one of the gravestones in Hollywood Cemetery, where many Confederate soldiers are buried. “Try parking your car on top of those and see what happens to you.”
Utsey said the next steps are to remove the cars and then the asphalt – and then to discuss what should follow. Some people believe a memorial should be built on the site. Utsey said research should be done to tell the story of the people whose remains lie in the African Burial Ground.
Related story: A Hard Trail to Commemorate Slavery
Here is a map of the Richmond Slave Trail markers.
View Richmond Slave Trail Markers in a larger map