5/4/11

Richmond's slave burial ground site set for transformation

By WILL JONES

A parking lot that's believed to cover a burial ground for slaves and free blacks will be turned into a sod-covered memorial by mid-July, thanks to the generosity of three contracting firms.

Mayor Dwight C. Jones announced Wednesday that J.E. Liesfeld Contractor Inc. of Rockville, Dwight Snead Construction Co. of Glen Allen and Ty's Hauling and Paving Inc. of Richmond had agreed to donate $123,000 in services to help provide a more honorable setting for the deceased.

"My family has lived and worked in Richmond for generations, and we're very pleased and very happy to be a part of this just cause," said Joseph E. Liesfeld Jr., president of J.E. Liesfeld Contractor.

The company had submitted a bid to handle all of the project's site work but was not selected.

Dwight Snead, president of Dwight Snead Construction, and Malcolm E. Thomas, president of Ty's Hauling and Paving, said they were pleased to support the city's plans for the 3.4-acre site, which is now being called the African Burial Ground.

Late this month, the three firms will remove four inches of asphalt and six inches of gravel before Messer Contracting LLC, which is being hired by the city, installs an irrigation system, nine inches of fill material and one inch of sod.

The parking lot, along East Broad Street by Interstate 95, became the subject of controversy nearly three years ago when its owner, Virginia Commonwealth University, prepared a repaving.

Activists, including representatives of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said such action would amount to further desecration of sacred land. Former City Councilman Sa'ad El-Amin also filed lawsuits attempting to get the asphalt removed. The lawsuits failed, but the property is being transferred from VCU to the city thanks to a $3.3 million state-budget amendment.

At Wednesday's announcement, Jones credited the contractors as well as the NAACP, Gov. Bob McDonnell, state legislators and the Richmond Slave Trail Commission for helping the city to secure the property. The City Council is expected to formally accept the gifts this month.

The parking lot will be closed permanently May 20, allowing site work to begin May 31. The project is expected to take about six weeks. An archaeologist will be onsite in case any historical artifacts are unexpectedly uncovered.

The exact location of the burial ground is not clear and it may have been disturbed years ago with the construction of I-95, the diversion of Shockoe Creek and other changes to the land, according to state archaeologists and the Slave Trail Commission.

The commission is expected to lead discussions of long-term plans for the site. The group is preparing a planning workshop that will focus on the burial site and nearby areas of Shockoe Bottom that include the remains of the Lumpkin slave jail and the site of a potential slavery museum.

"We're going to beautify it and make sure it's kept in pristine condition," Jones said of the burial ground.


wjones@timesdispatch.com

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