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.

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3 Comments on “Virginia to Finally Get Its ‘Ass-Phalt’ Off People’s Ancestors”

  1. unspywriter says:

    I barely remember a similar controversy in Culpeper, VA, when some construction unearthed an African-American cemetery from the early 1800’s. The details have faded but I do remember the debate over what to do. And unfortunately I don’t remember the outcome, but I think the bodies were moved and reburied–not the appropriate outcome obviously.

  2. Mai-Linh says:

    Interesting. It’s always tough to figure out what to do when these cemeteries are “rediscovered,” as happens all the time. (I say rediscovered in quote marks because, often, the local African American community never “lost” the cemetery; it’s just the dominant community that “forgot” and therefore had to “rediscover.”) But sometimes there are relatively good outcomes, such as in the case of the extensive African Burial Ground located in downtown Manhattan, now a national historic site: http://www.africanburialground.gov

  3. […] at Legal Lacuna, Mai Linh has posted a followup to a paper she presented at a recent conference (Get your Ass-Phalt off my Ancestors) on Richmond’s […]


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