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“The 300-year struggle for the African Burial Ground, from a strictly scientific standpoint, constitutes a continuing assertion of human identity against those who would belittle or belie that status for reasons of economic expediency.” – Dr. Michael L. Blakey, from The New York African Burial Ground Project: An Examination of Enslaved Lives, a Construction of Ancestral Ties, presented August 19, 1997 to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights Sub-Committee on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities.
CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE DHR AND IHB REPORTS ON THE LOCATION OF THE “BURIAL GROUND FOR NEGROES”
1. Record the project and produce documents that will assist with public awareness and the development of political will to reclaim this site, and sites like it, for the edification of our current and future selves. 2. Facilitate an archaeologial survey and excavation to retrieve physical evidence to confirm the existance of burials at or near the site location established by most current research, 1554 E. Broad Street. 3. Establish project-driven relationships with universities and institutions to develop cooperative and collaborative historical, political, anthropological, archaeological studies. 4. Develop national and international relationships with communities, organizations, cultural institutions (both academic and heritage tourism) and economic development interests to focus attention on Richmond and its role in the Middle Passage years and in the critical developmental years of U.S. plantation-based economy dependent upon slave labor and its concurrent cultural justifications, and that impact upon U.S. civil and societal development – especially as regards race and class structures and their evolving impact on contemporary life in the U.S. 5. Further, to understand how similar processes have taken place in other parts of the U.S., Africa, Europe and other slave-holding societies throughout the world. (First project: Virginia Friends of Mali)
ORIGINS of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation
Establishing the historical highway marker in October 2004 to honor Gabriel’s sacrifice in the struggle for freedom, justice and equality was a gratifying experience on more than one level.
First, the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality successfully fulfilled a year-long commitment of political and cultural significance to the community. Secondly, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources Historical Highway Marker officially places the site of the “Burial Ground for Negroes” north of Broad Street between 15th and 16th streets in the Shockoe Bottom historic district, making it the first state and city aknowledgement of its existance. It was closed the year that the Barton Heights Cemetery was completed, approximately 1805. As such this burial ground may have been the oldest municipal cemetery for Africans/African Americans in Richmond, and possibly in Virginia, which could make it one of the oldest in colonial U.S. Richmond’s Burial Ground for Negroes currently lies 30-40 feet beneath what is now Standard Parking lot, used daily by students and staff at VCU Medical Center and owned by a private real estate development company in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Each year since 1999, the city of Richmond’s Slave Trail Commission, re-launched by former city councilman Sa’ad El-Amin and currently chaired by Delgate Delores McQuinn, and Elegba Folklore Society, led by Janine Bell (founding director), present the Juneteenth Celebration and the Walk Along the Trail of Enslaved Africans. The Walk begins at the Manchester docks of Ancarrow’s Landing and culminates in a ceremony in the parking lot over the Burial Ground, so that homage is paid to the ancestors who are buried there, under earth, under asphalt, under an ongoing traffic of indifference.
The burial ground’s existence had been suspected for many years, but was proven by the research of local historian and author Elizabeth Cann Kambourian in 1992. Her original and seminal research, conducted at the Library of Virginia, has been used by the Department of Parks and Recreation, A.C.O.R.N., the City of Richmond, the Slave Trail Commission, the Defenders and other organizations to bolster projects that become a part of the bank of cultural and community enrichment. Bringing Gabriel’s rebellion into sharper view within the bounds of the city he sought to free from the ideological hypocrisy of slavery in the “age of enlightenment” was a solid contribution to that enrichment. The marker is permanently installed and those who read it will now find meaning in a place they would otherwise not have found and known.
The Burial Ground needs to be reclaimed, uncovered and honored. The Burial Ground needs to be mined for the wealth of information it could provide to enrich the history of Africans and their descendants in the United States. Recognizing these needs became the basis for our next step: to form the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation committee.
This committee’s membership is that of people whose prime motivation is the strengthening of our people and their identity in this culture that would banish or absorb them into oblivion if at all possible. We seek to add to the community’s understanding of its origins by reclaiming this burial ground, bringing the memory of our ancestors into view and acknowledging the whole history of the existence, humanity and contributions of Africans and their descendants to this place and to our people now.
We will also further this effort by raising up the stories of others in our history whose lives have added critical layers to the evolution of the Richmond in which we now live. It is part of our task to remember people like the Lovings of Caroline County, union espionage artists Mary Bowser and Elizabeth Van Lews, John Mitchell Jr., the “Fighting Editor” of the Richmond Planet newspaper, and the countless unnamed people who fought back against slavery and oppression in countless unnamed ways in hopes of living in a more wholesome and promising society.
Why does it matter now?
It matters, because without a whole history, understanding is fractured and combative, making trust impossible. And there is certainly no unity, no reconciliation, and no future without trust.