Transatlantic Slave Trade Maps Online

Many thanks to @donaculcinea for tweeting this terrific resource: a set of nine introductory maps detailing the transatlantic slave trade.

The maps, excerpted from Eltis and Richardson’s Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (Yale UP, 2010), are posted on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database website, an extensive repository of information about slavery and slave trade voyages.


Teaching Property Law and Race: “Integrating Spaces” by Brophy et al.

My recollection of law school property class consists mostly of trying to fit a lot of archaic terms for ownership interests onto the one-page cheat sheet we were allowed for the exam. No fault of my professor, who made feudal language as interesting as it could be.

It was not until much later that I realized how truly fascinating property is. In a country where people used to own people, how can the law’s legitimation of a human’s attachment to something be anything but fascinating?

Today’s law students might come to this realization sooner, thanks to a practical, wide-ranging  book by Alfred Brophy, Alberto Lopez, and Kali Murray. Integrating Spaces: Property Law & Race (2011) is a casebook-style text that covers the many ways race and identity have shaped and continue to shape property in the U.S. It is intended as a supplemental text to help law professors integrate issues of race into their first-year property courses. Each chapter consists of a concise, clearly written overview of the issues and several illustrative cases.

Here is the table of contents:

Part I. Race in the Making of Property Law

Chapter 1. Origins: Possession and Dispossession in Property Law
Chapter 2. Property Rules and Slavery

Part II. Race and the Remaking of Property

Chapter 3. Racial Regulation of Public Spaces in the United States
Chapter 4. Discrimination and the Sale or Occupancy of Real Property

Part III. Race and Contemporary Property

Chapter 5. Redefining Housing and Neighborhood: Civil Rights and Its Impact on Property Law
Chapter 6. Contemporary Common Law Property
Chapter 7. Race, Ethnicity, and Culture in an International Perspective

I hope this much-needed book catches on.


Slave Cemetery at VCU Turned Over to the Richmond Slave Trail Commission

The Root (and its partner, National Public Radio) have picked up the story of Richmond’s Burial Ground for Negroes, which we posted about a while back. The historic slave and free black cemetery (c. 1750-1816), now also known as the African Burial Ground, has been used as a parking lot by Virginia Commonwealth University since the state purchased it in 2008. Today, it will be officially turned over to the City of Richmond’s Slave Trail Commission, which plans to preserve and memorialize the 1.6-acre site. The move comes only after years of community activism, an unsuccessful lawsuit, and growing negative publicity that put pressure on the state and the university.

As The Root reports, the Richmond controversy is one of several that have arisen in recent years over historic slave and free black cemeteries. The most well-known of these is the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan:

Chris Moore, a historian and curator at New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, was one of the first to inform the public about the African Burial Ground [in lower Manhattan]. According to Moore, the GSA tried to keep the excavation quiet. He said that federal officials and archaeologists initially claimed ignorance, but workmen at the site informed him they were ” … taking truckloads of bones out of here.”

The GSA initially announced that no more than a few hundred people were buried at the site; it is now estimated that there are 15,000-20,000 remains under a five-block area.

A long battle ensued, involving community protests, court hearings and support from city and state officials that finally garnered national attention. As a result, the excavation was halted for some time, and the disinterred remains of 419 people were sent to Howard University for research (and later re-interred at the African Burial Ground). A memorial was built next to the new building and an interpretive center added inside the lobby, explaining the site, now a national monument.

Other burial grounds have been rediscovered in places as varied as Portsmouth, N.H.; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and Dallas — and they often trigger similar community struggles to reclaim those sites. For several years, Harlem’s African-American community has been fighting to reclaim and memorialize a burial ground covered by a bus depot.

As the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation approaches (Jan. 1, 2013), efforts to recover Richmond’s African Burial Ground — and all other sites that contain black ancestral remains — gain special significance for all Americans.


Virginia to Finally Get Its ‘Ass-Phalt’ Off People’s Ancestors

The controversy over a historic slave and free black cemetery in downtown Richmond appears headed, finally, for a reasonable resolution. The Burial Ground for Negroes (c. 1750-1816), which currently lies under a parking lot at Virginia Commonwealth University, has been the subject of community protest and an unsuccessful lawsuit.

Today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that VCU plans to remove the asphalt from the parking lot, which is slated to be turned into a memorial under a deal between the state, the city, and VCU. VCU will use state funds for the removal. But it’s still unclear how soon the work will be done, since the new plans depend on a budget amendment that won’t take effect until July 1.

I’ve been following this story since last fall, when I began researching the site’s history and analyzing the legal case that arose from it. Richmond was a major slave trading center, and the Shockoe Bottom neighborhood where the cemetery lies was once “ground zero” of the city’s slave trade, according to a documentary film by Shawn Utsey. The cemetery was always an abject space, located on flood-prone land adjacent to Shockoe Creek. It was near a notorious slave jail, as well as the gallows where Richmond’s most famous slave rebellion leader was executed. Over the years, the area experienced waves of redevelopment, much of it racially inflected, as black homes and businesses were torn down to make way for Interstate 95 and other structures. With such a sensitive history, it was no wonder that emotions rose when VCU purchased the 1.6 acre site in 2008 and began using it as a parking lot.

In early 2010, Sa’ad El-Amin, a former Richmond City Councilman and a divisive figure in local politics, filed a mandamus petition seeking to force the state to find the cemetery’s historic boundaries so that the site could be properly preserved. The suit was dismissed, as the standard for mandamus was clearly not met.

However, the case was instructive because it demonstrated the obstacles that descendants of slaves face when they seek to access or protect from desecration the burial sites of their possible ancestors. Due to conditions of slavery and racial inequities that continued after Emancipation, many descendants do not know or cannot prove their ancestry and, therefore, do not have standing to sue under the common law for cemetery access. (Alfred Brophy wrote a great article on cemetery law, available on SSRN.) El-Amin, not being able to prove direct descent from anyone buried in the cemetery, was limited in his legal options. The controversy, therefore, had to be resolved in the political rather than legal arena, and as such it was subject to the vagaries of local politics in a city that has historically “buried” its ugly racial past.

As with most conflicts over the dead, this one is really about relations between the living. Last fall, El-Amin stood in front of the Richmond courthouse and spoke to reporters about his mandamus suit and another suit he filed over the cemetery:

“We are here to get VCU’s asphalt off of our burial ground,” El-Amin said on the steps of the John Marshall Courts Building downtown, elongating the first vowel, as in “ASSphalt.” One can only imagine, El-Amin said, if the shoe were on the other foot.

“What do you think would happen if I drove over to Hollywood Cemetery and parked my car on one of those Confederate generals?” he asked.