Richmond makes surprising find at desecrated Black cemetery: Intact graves (2024)

RICHMOND — New archaeological work shows that despite more than a century of desecration by construction and road-building, one of the nation’s most endangered major burying grounds for free and enslaved Africans still contains a significant number of intact gravesites.

The findings add urgency to the city of Richmond’s stalled efforts to persuade an advertising company to abandon a billboard planted atop the long-forgotten burying ground, which once could have contained as many as 22,000 bodies. One pylon supporting the billboard — facing a stretch of Interstate 64 also built atop the burying ground — is sunk directly into at least one gravesite and near dozens more, according to a city report obtained by The Washington Post.

Ground-penetrating radar scans on a two-acre section of what was once a much larger cemetery identified a minimum of 134 intact graves, the report said. “This area is a cemetery, specifically it is not just an area of memorial,” it concluded. Conducted in late 2023, the survey was not initially made public because officials said they worried that vandals would use it to further deface the site.

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Known as the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground, the cemetery — active between 1816 and 1879 — was listed in 2021 as one of Virginia’s most endangered historical sites by Preservation Virginia.

“I was a little surprised that there were so many intact burials. I thought that there would be remains scattered all through there,” said Lenora McQueen, who is the only person so far identified as the descendant of someone buried there.

It was McQueen’s work tracking down her ancestor — an enslaved woman named Kitty Cary who died in 1857 — that brought the burial ground back to light in a city that had tried to eradicate it. Covered by roads, railroad tracks, the billboard and an abandoned gas station, the African burying ground suffered a far different fate than the adjacent White Christian and Hebrew cemeteries founded the same year. They are intact and well-maintained.

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But the finding of likely graves complicates efforts to memorialize the African cemetery’s history. Any work to tear down the billboard and the abandoned gas station risks further desecration, said Kimberly M. Chen, senior manager in Richmond’s planning and development department.

“How we deal with that site moving forward is going to have to be so delicate and so informed and so measured,” Chen said. “Anything moving forward becomes ground disturbance.”

Photographs from the 1880s had made it seem unlikely that any graves remained intact atop the hilly site; one image shows a mound of dirt as nearby 5th Street was being cut through the cemetery, and another shows that mound sheared away. News accounts at the time described bones and other remains washing down gullies in the rain.

The thinking now, Chen said, is that the dirt produced by road construction covered and essentially protected part of the burial ground. When the mound was scraped away, the graves were undisturbed. She said the city hopes to do geological work to confirm that theory.

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Even so, it’s possible anything left is not well-preserved. Richmond has acidic soil, Chen said, and other graves uncovered by construction around town have shown little left beyond discolored dirt and a few teeth or bones — though bodies buried in certain kinds of caskets fare better.

The existence of the graves was disclosed last week during the first of several community meetings planned to seek input about how to memorialize Shockoe Hill. Burt Pinnock, an architect coordinating design plans for a broader Shockoe Project to commemorate Richmond’s central role in the nation’s slave trade, ran the session and said the public needs to know what’s at stake.

“Our goal is to create a permanent memorial on the site,” Pinnock said.

The first task, he said, is helping residents understand that there are two historical African burying grounds in Richmond: An older one, rediscovered under a downtown parking lot in the 1990s, is better-known but not as large.

McQueen’s research led the city to acquire 1.2 acres at the heart of Shockoe Hill three years ago. She would like to see a sculpture depicting the way the burial ground looked when it was in use, but even that could disturb the newly identified graves, Pinnock said. It’s possible, he added, that the billboard and the gas station will have to be incorporated into the memorial to avoid further damage.

The fragile state of the graves emphasizes the importance of keeping vehicles off the grass, broken pavement and gravel that covers most of the area, said Kim Gray, a former city councilwoman who has advocated for recognizing the burying ground. “We are compelled to act now because we do know,” Gray said. “When we know better, we do better.”

But fencing off the site isn’t practical, Chen said, because the billboard’s owner has legal access to maintain the structure. That entails driving heavy equipment across the burials.

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Lamar Advertising holds a 99-year easem*nt for the billboard, which until recently has advertised everything from lawyers’ offices to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s political campaign and Virginia Commonwealth University’s medical school. The VCU sign touched off a furor in February because of the medical school’s history of digging up bodies from that cemetery in the 19th century for dissection in classrooms.

McQueen complained directly to the university president and the advertisem*nt quickly disappeared. Within weeks, Mayor Levar Stoney appealed to Lamar to get rid of the billboard entirely. Lamar had already proposed surrendering rights to the billboard in return for spots at six other locations around Richmond.

Stoney rejected the idea. “I think it is truly disgusting that a company is making profit on a property where the enslaved lie underneath. That’s problematic,” Stoney said in an interview at the time with The Post. “So we want Lamar Advertising to do the right thing. And that is, to go above and beyond to show that they are going to be good corporate partners with the Richmond community.”

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Since then, the matter has stalled. The billboard’s two faces are left empty and black. Stoney’s office said the mayor has heard nothing more from Lamar. A person who answered the phone this week in Lamar’s Richmond office said no one was available to comment; a corporate spokeswoman at the Louisiana-based company did not respond to emails or a phone call.

In February, Lamar issued a statement to local TV stations that said the company pledged to “work toward finding an amicable solution with the city, and the city leaders expressed gratitude at Lamar’s willingness to help them solve this issue. … It is Lamar’s intent to continue to work in good faith with the interested parties to come to a suitable resolution.”

correction

A previous version of this article incorrectly reported that Richmond acquired two acres at the heart of Shockoe Hill three years ago. The city acquired 1.2 acres. The article has been corrected.

Richmond makes surprising find at desecrated Black cemetery: Intact graves (2024)
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