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.

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