Times Dispatch Pre-Forum Story by Will Jones
Former Richmond City Councilman Sa'ad El-Amin and other activists have renewed their fight to preserve a burial ground for slaves and free blacks in Shockoe Bottom.
To mark the 210th anniversary of the execution of the slave rebellion leader Gabriel, the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality will meet this afternoon to discuss efforts to reclaim the burial site, potentially through a land swap between the city and Virginia Commonwealth University.
This month, El-Amin filed a lawsuit in Richmond Circuit Court to stop VCU from using its parking lot north of East Broad Street on the claim that it desecrates the slaves and free blacks who were buried there.
El-Amin filed the suit against VCU and its president, Michael Rao, after taking similar action early this year against Kathleen Kilpatrick as director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. That lawsuit, which is pending, attempts to force work to determine the boundaries of the burial ground.
El-Amin has challenged a 2008 Historic Resources report that said most of the burial ground was covered by Interstate 95 and that only a portion extended about 50 feet to the east, under the VCU parking lot.
In his latest suit, El-Amin argues that "parking cars on the African burial ground by VCU damages and desecrates the site; violates state law; and is inconsistent with its preservation as directed by the General Assembly." State lawmakers approved a resolution this year encouraging the preservation of the historic sites of Lumpkin's Slave Jail and the "slave burial ground in Shockoe Bottom."
According to the lawsuit, VCU bought the parking lot property in 2008 and was aware that all or part of it included a burial ground for slaves and free blacks. In a meeting last month, Rao told a group working for preservation of the site that he was "exploring a land swap with the city" after similar talks with the state were not fruitful, the lawsuit says.
Mayor Dwight C. Jones said that he and Rao are meeting regularly to find a way to preserve the property.
"I don't know whether it's land swap. I don't know whether it's somebody raising some money to buy it. I just don't know what it's going to be," Jones said, "but I think everybody agrees in principle that that land needs to be set aside for the purpose of memorializing, you know, what happened there."
In his suit, El-Amin identifies himself as president of Into the Light Heritage Tours, which provides tours of African-American historical sites, and as organizer of the nonprofit Society for Preservation of African-American History and Antiquities. El-Amin served on the City Council from 1998 to 2003 before resigning to serve 32 months in federal prison for tax-fraud conspiracy. The former 6th District councilman was released in 2006 and re-emerged last year to oppose plans for a ballpark in Shockoe Bottom.
Will Jones, 10 Oct. 2010