Long lost to view, the 20th century reclamation process was launched on October 10, 2004 with the placement of the historic highway marker "Gabriel's Execution" on the sidewalk overpass between 15th and 16th streets on E. Broad St, by the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality. On December 10, the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project, and project committee, was formed to carry out the reclamation of Richmond's Black History in Shockoe Bottom by starting with the Burial Ground and Gabriel's Rebellion.
Click here to read several academic reports about the Burial Ground, and other relevant papers.
We believe that by working publicly to reclaim the hidden Black history of Richmond, especially during Slavery - from the city's origins through the civil war - we can begin to give Black Richmonders a stronger sense of historic "ownership" and pride. Pride in living, in resisting enslavement and white supremacy, in surviving sharecropping, lynching, vagrancy laws, old Jim Crow, systemic racism and desegregation. This struggle represents and is the assertion of the right of an oppressed people to self-determination in the face of their oppressor. And more recently we have come to understand that this struggle and every one of its public victories forces the established leadership, white and black, to acknowledge that Black Lives Do Matter.
Nearly 9 years of effort by the Defenders, and many other individuals and organizations, resulted in being ready when the opportunity for "David" to move "Goliath", and the property's ownership was transferred from Virginia Commonwealth University to the city of Richmond, under the management of the Slave Trail Commission. The struggle to reclaim Richmond's African Burial Ground was concluded, for the time being, on May 24, 2011 with a bittersweet ground-breaking ceremony hosted by the city of Richmond. By July of that year, through donated labor by 3 Richmond contractors, the parking lot asphalt had been removed from all 3.1 acres, and a new grass expanse covered a new memorial park. Still not appropriately marked, this site covers hundreds, perhaps thousands of unrecorded burials of Black people, enslaved and free, impoverished, maybe homeless, the transient, as well as the convicted and executed.
The struggle to protect this site continues because to date, the Slave Trail Commission has produced no concrete plans for the site's improvement, and because of the larger threat to Shockoe Bottom: an enormous sports, residential and retail development scheme which would marginalize what has only just been reclaimed and forever destroy the rich cultural resources we are only just beginning to comprehend - in scale and significance to Richmond's role in one of the most important developmental components of the history of the United States and its society: the trade in enslaved Africans from 1619 through the civil war, and further, it's systemic entrenchment of White Supremacy as a way of Virginia life with direct impact on the apartheid and eugenicist systems of South Africa and Nazi Germany. These burns to the flesh of a hyper-idealized US American psyche must opened and cleansed if truth is to be understood and real progress is to be made.
This matters here on our soil, and in the rest of the world where the list of US enemies grows exponentially by the millisecond because of the onslaught of it's unyielding, schizophrenic approach to stealing resources while promising democracy. We must understand that the leadership of the US has not really let of manifest destiny as its driving principle. That we, as a people, are continuously expected to cheer, be default, for declarations that our way of life is THE way of life, no matter what it costs the rest of the world, is one of the great horrors of our time. We live here, so we must fix this.
The Burial Ground is the second to last stop on the formal "Trail of Enslaved Africans" which begins on the site of the former Manchester Docks at Ancarrow's Landing. This landing is a popular launch site for boating and as a part of the James River Park system offers space for recreation, including fishing. If you'd like to walk the Trail, here is the link to the Google Map of Ancarrow's Landing. Click on the map to get directions.
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One of our Sacred Ground Project committee members, and former graduate anthropology student who worked on the remains found at the New York African Burial Ground, included the "Cemetery of New Blacks" in Rio and Richmond's African Burial Ground in Richmond in her graduate thesis paper. She spent several months in residence in Rio to study this site and it's meaning to the local Black communities. Scientists there are using the same tooth analysis technique used on the New York African Burial Ground remains to ascertain countries of origin for the enslaved men, women and children who were buried in this site. The mid-18th to early-19th century use of this cemetery (1760-1830) coincides with that of Richmond's African Burial Ground (1750-1816).
Rio's Cemetery of New Blacks sheds light on horrors of slave trade
Tooth analysis shows Africans taken from wide area ranging from Sudan in the north-east to Mozambique in the south
Slaves' mass grave is grim reminder of Brazil's racist legacy
· Activists say little has changed for black youths
· Burials likened to deaths from drugs conflicts
Tom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro
The Guardian, Thursday 29 December 2005
When the bones started to appear at the back of his crumbling house in central Rio de Janeiro, Petrucio Guimaraes' first reaction was to call the police, not the archaeologists.
"After the first centimetre of concrete we started seeing all these bones," said Mr Guimaraes, 58, who had been underpinning his 19th-century home. "I thought it must have been some kind of massacre."
Mr Guimaraes and his wife, Ana de la Merced, had unearthed what is thought to be one of the world's largest slave burial grounds, a mass grave where thousands of corpses were abandoned by Brazil's slave traders in the 18th and 19th centuries.
When the archaeologists arrived at the Cemitério dos Pretos Novos (Cemetery of the New Blacks) in Gamboa they uncovered 5,563 bone fragments and teeth. Experts say as many as 20,000 bodies may have been buried in the area, most of them African men aged 18-25 who had died during the three-month sea journey to Brazil or soon after arriving.
"In truth it was a ditch into which they threw the bodies," said Antonio Carlos Rodrigues, the former president of Rio's black rights council. "When they dug it up you could see skulls on top of other skulls, bodies piled up on each other." Between 1550 and 1888, when slavery was officially abolished, at least 3 million African slaves were shipped to Brazil by the Portuguese. The port district of Gamboa found itself at the centre of this trade. The area was also home to so-called casas de engordo (fattening houses) where slaves were fed before being sent to work in the plantations.
Civil rights activists, like Mr Rodrigues, believe that until Brazil faces up to the realities embodied by the cemetery, the racist legacies of slavery will continue to blight its society. He compares the buried slaves to the thousand or so young Brazilians killed in the city's drug conflicts each year, predominantly impoverished Afro-Brazilians aged 15-24.
Nowhere is this analogy clearer than in Providencia, Rio's oldest shantytown. The favela, founded in 1897 by homeless soldiers and freed slaves, towers over Gamboa's mass grave and is bisected by a towering staircase built by slaves. On the steps teenage drug traffickers, most of them black or mixed-race, loiter in the sun clutching walkie-talkies and with revolvers tucked into their shorts.
Rio's mayor recently pumped 14.3m reals (about £3.6m) into the creation of an open-air museum in Providencia, which also contains a museum in the home of Dodo da Portela, a samba composer, who was a descendant of African slaves.
"These are forgotten stories that we have to remember," said Mr Guimaraes, who has abandoned his small business to become the curator of a memorial museum at his home.
According to a recent UN study, Afro-Brazilians still make up 63% of the poorest section of Brazilian society. Faced with poverty and a vast social divide, many young Brazilians find themselves forced into the city's 750 favelas, or even into the drug trade.
"The slave owners freed their slaves and then said: 'You're free. Sort yourselves out'. But in fact all that happened was that these people went back to living in slave-like conditions," said Mr Rodrigues. "It seems as if the story hasn't changed for Afro-Brazilians. The era changed but not the reality."
At least 3 million slaves were shipped to Brazil from Africa between 1550 and 1888. Many died on the three-month journey aboard cramped ships. The bulk came from what is now Nigeria and from the Portuguese colonies of Angola, Mozambique and Cape Verde. On arrival, the slaves were sold in markets and put to work in sugar and coffee plantations across Brazil. Some fled, forming autonomous cities known as quilombos. Several of Rio de Janeiro's favelas - among them the Morro da Coroa, the Morro dos Prazeres and Pereirao - are thought to have begun life as quilombos
Nearly all written records relating to slavery were destroyed when Brazil, the last country to do so, outlawed the practice in 1888.
APRIL 12th VIGIL AT AFRICAN BURIAL GROUND BECOMES A CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE ACTION when 8 members of the RABG Community Organizing Committee stand at the entrance to VCU's parking lot covering the Burial Ground while cars are re-routed by VCU staff and police to ALTERNATE parking lot C. The vigil began at 6:30 am at the Gabriel historic marker on E. Broad St. overlooking the Burial Ground site and lasted til 7am. 8 participants then moved from the marker to stand before the entrance of the parking lot at the intersection of Marshall and 16th streets until 8:38 am when VCU police moved in to arrest 4 of the 8 participants. The 4 spent 2.5 hours in city lock-up released on their own recognizance, charged with Class 1 Misdemeanor - trespassing after being forbidden to do so - with a possible 12 months in jail and $2500 fine if convicted. At their arraignment the next day at the Manchester Court House at 10th & Hull St. Road in the historic south-side Manchester neighborhood, a trial date was set for Wednesday, May 25, 2011 at 10:00 am. RABG Community Organizing Committee is asking supporters to attend the trial. Contact 644-5834 or DefendersFJE@hotmail.com to learn how you can help.
- Dr. Michael Blakey, Institute for Historical Biology, College of William & Mary, Applying Human Biology is the component of IHB that seeks to encourage a renewed relevancy of biological anthropology for identifying and solving societal problems. Dr. Blakey was lead researcher for the New York African Burial Ground project.
- Representative, Virginia Department of Historic Resources, the State Historic Preservation Office, with a mission to foster, encourage, and support the stewardship of Virginia's significant historic architectural, archaeological, and cultural resources.