Richmond's African Burial Ground


The African Burial Ground is located at 15th and E. Broad streets in the historic Shockoe Bottom neighborhood, home of Richmond's original 32-block footprint, laid out by William Mayo at the commission of city founder William Byrd, in 1737. Known only as a "Burial Ground for Negroes" on an 1809 surveyor's map of Richmond, Richmond's African Burial Ground was active from before 1750 through 1816. It is notable for being Richmond's first municipal cemetery that was open to the burials of Black people, and for being the site of the city gallows where many of the members of the slave revolt of 1800 were hanged, including its principle organizer and strategist, 24-year old enslaved blacksmith Gabriel, known at the time as "General Gabriel", on Oct. 10, 1800. His burial place is unknown.

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.


View Larger Map




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Before 2017

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
Ana de la Merced Guimaraes
Ana de la Merced Guimaraes who discovered that her house was sitting on the
Cemetery of New Blacks, a crude burying ground for African slaves. 

Photograph: Renzo Gostoli/AP
Locals called it the "cemetery of the new blacks", but in truth it wasn't much of a cemetery. Devoid of headstones, wreaths or tearful mourners, this squalid harbourside burial ground was the final resting place for thousands of Africans shipped into slavery.
The new world greeted them with a lonely death in an unfamiliar land.
For decades the cemetery and those buried there between 1760 and 1830 were forgotten, hidden under layer after layer of urban development.
The study of teeth from 30 partial skeletons has hinted that slaves arriving in Rio – many of whom were sold on to work in coffee and sugar plantations or gold mines – came from a much wider geographical region than once thought.
Archaeologists and anthropologists studying bone and tooth fragments are shedding light on the horrors of a trade that saw at least 3 million slaves shipped from Africa to Brazil between 1550 and 1888, when the practice was officially abolished.
"It was ugly: a dump into which bodies were thrown and burned," said Sheila Mendonça de Souza, a bio-archaeologist studying the cemetery in Rio de Janeiro, once one of the busiest slave ports in the Americas.
"People weren't buried in tombs, they were tossed away into mass graves."
Della Cook, a biological anthropologist from the University of Indiana working on the burial ground, said: "There is a lot of scholarship on slave cemeteries and the slave trade in North America but very little in South America, which is one of the things that makes this site fascinating.
"We have historical records but we haven't been able to look before at the people themselves."
Using strontium isotope analyses of tooth enamel – a technique that helps detect where a person was raised and has previously been used on samples from burial sites in the Caribbean and Mexico – academics were able to confirm the large area from where the "new blacks" came.
"What we got was essentially the entire range of strontium isotope values," said Cook. "It surprised us that the spectrum was so broad."
The results indicated that slavers had "waded way into the interior" of Africa rather than restricting their search to coastal areas, Cook added.
Mendonça, who works for the national school of public health in Rio, said: "We were not able to pinpoint a specific place … but we confirmed the diversity of origin of those [slaves] who were arriving in Rio de Janeiro. They came both from the Atlantic coast and east coast."
A parallel study of cosmetic tooth modifications, common in some regions of Africa, also underlined the scope of the slave trade.
Mendonça said her team had found tooth markings indicating some of the slaves were native to what are now Sudan and Mozambique, in north-eastern and southern Africa.
Archaeologists believe as many as 20,000 slaves may have been buried at the cemetery, mostly men aged 18-25 who died during the gruelling journey to Brazil or shortly after arriving.
"The majority were very young, principally young boys and girls who would adapt better to captivity than older people," said Mendonça.
The dire conditions of the slave market and port, close to the cemetery, were captured by British writer Maria Graham, following a visit in the early 1820s.
"Almost every house in this very long street is a depot for slaves … In some places the poor creatures were lying on mats, evidently too sick to sit up," she wrote.
"The number of ships from Africa that I see constantly entering the harbour, and the multitudes that throng the slave-houses in this street, convince me that the importation must be very great. The ordinary proportion of deaths on the passage is, I am told, about one in five."
The 3 million slaves who made the journey were previously thought to have come only from what is now Nigeria and from the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Cape Verde.
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.
With Rio undergoing a facelift for the 2016 Olympics, some archeological discoveries have been made as the city renovates its decrepit downtown port.
In early 2010 archeologists unearthed what they believe to be the remains of Rio's Valongo slave port, through which tens of thousands of African slaves were shipped. Experts hope advancing redevelopment projects will help them rescue further clues about the identities of Brazil's "new blacks", who were buried not far from the Valongo dock.
"When you start messing around with the landscape these things will appear," said Dr Ricardo Ventura Santos, a bio-anthropologist from Brazil's Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, who is co-ordinating the cemetery research team.
Cook said she hoped redevelopment would permit further excavation and the inclusion of places such as the slave burial ground on the city's tourist trail, creating a "monument to the African experience in Brazil".
The excavation of a Roman cemetery under London's Spitalfields market, during the 1990s, could serve as a model, she added.
"Rio has very little history of the slave trade for either Brazilians or external tourists," she said.
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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."

Backstory

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.


Plan to attend October 10 cultural celebration at the Burial Ground.



RABG Advocates Rolandah Cleopattrah, Donnell Brantley, Autumn Barrett and Phil Wilayto with supporter Tiamba Wilkerson (center) at WRIR after broadcast of live interview on DefendersLIVE, hosted by Defenders member Ana Edwards, noon on April 18, 2011.


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.


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April 3: RABG Community Organizing Committee held April 3 Emancipation Day Celebration with Open Mic to acknowledge the importance of April 3, 1865, Richmond's Emancipation (or Liberation) Day when Union troops marched in to liberate the city from it's role as the capital city (seat of power) of the Confederacy. This date was celebrated by Richmond's Black community, to those whites sympathetic to the Union cause and/or opposed to the institution of slavery as well as to all residents weary of that devastating war. The Defenders Sacred Ground Project gave up its spot in the unveiling program to protest to rescheduling Unveiling event due to Mayor Jones and Governor McDonnell staying in Houston TX for VCU Rams participation in the Final Four tournaments. The RABG Community Organizing Committee planned to attend the Unveiling program oon April 10 to honor the history being made visible by this admirable marker project AND to protest the irony of the Burial Ground remaining invisible at VCU's "hand" during such a celebration. 

April 4: The RABG Community Organizing Committee sent a letter to the Richmond Slave Trail Commission by e-mail asking for clarification of 1) plans for removing parking lot from the Burial Ground, 2) what provisions for economic benefit to the black community will be realized from the development of the Burial Ground site and the Shockoe Heritage Plan (i.e. minority business contracts and/or jobs to disenfranchised black workers), and 3) because the information on the city website is unclear, current membership of the Slave Trail Commission and its executive committee as well as criteria and procedures for becoming and serving as a member. Given the upcoming unveiling program, the commission was asked to respond to the first query during the next monthly Slave Trail Commission meeting on April 7. Richmond city council members were cc'd on this letter. On April 5, Slave Trail Commission announced cancellation of April 7 meeting due to anticipated absences related member schedules and to preparations for the upcoming, April 10, Unveiling of 17 Historical Markers along the Trail of Enslaved Africans.  To date (April 22) no response to the RABG COC letter had been received.

April 10: Unveiling of 17 Historic Markers along Trail of Enslaved Africans: RABG Community Organizaing Committee and up to 50 others, including 12 members of the Unitarian Universalist Church (Blanton Ave.) with an 8-foot banner,  attend the 3-minute unveiling of the African Burial Ground markers (there are 2 on-site) as performed by a member of the Baptist Ministers Conference, accompanied by volunteers handing out programs, maps and brochures of the 17 markers being unveiled simultaneously that day. Signs reading "Every Second You Wait, You Continue to Desecrate: VCU Close the Parking Lot!" The COC then gathered with all present to march over to Lumpkin's Jail site of the main stage and program to silently protest while attending the ceremonies. A press release issued later that evening announced an April 12 vigil at Burial Ground on 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War in 1861 when confederate South Carolina forces fired on a federal fortress at Fort Sumter in South Carolina.


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Thursday, March 3, 2011, 4pm
East District Initiative Center, 701 North 25th St., Church Hill, Richmond, VA 23223-6539, (804) 646-4599
GUESTS:
This is the first time these two institutions will meet to present their opinions on the state of knowledge on the size and location of the burial ground and what the next steps could be. The Defenders worked with DHR to install the historic highway marker at E. Broad and 15th streets, "Execution of Gabriel". Recently the target of a lawsuit for writ of mandamus, DHR published the initial assessment of existing research on the location of Richmond's African Burial Ground in July 2008; an assessment that was reviewed by IHB in September 2008, offering observations based upon lessons learned during the research on the NY African Burial Ground and challenging some of the assumptions used in the DHR report. A subsequent report was published by the Virginia Historical Society providing additional information on the historical and contemporary conditions possibly impacting the ability to identify the exact size and location of the burial ground.


Richmond's Slave Trail Commission meets
the first Thursday of every month at 4pm
East District Initiative Center
701 North 25th Street, Church Hill
Richmond, VA 23223-6539
(804) 646-4599


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February 9, 2011


You won!
In less than 24 hours, dozens of people responded to the appeal to e-mail members of the Richmond City Council Slave Trail Commission, urging them to postpone any decision on the wording of the African Burial Ground marker text until the community had a chance to weigh in with their comments and suggestions.



That decision was to have been made by the middle of this week, with the text then to be sent by Feb. 11 to be incorporated into the physical markers. Thanks to your intervention, that decision is being postponed, in order to allow community input into the wording of the marker. The reason why this is so important is that the markers will define the historical, political and cultural meaning of this sacred ground, a definition that we believe is fundamentally the right of the Black community as a whole to decide. This is what we mean by the right of oppressed peoples to self-determination.


Dr. Shawn Utsey, the producer and director of the award-winning documentary “Meet Me in the Bottom: The Struggle to Reclaim Richmond's African Burial Ground” and a member of the Slave Trail Commission, raised the issue of community input at the commission's Feb. 3 monthly meeting. The African Burial Ground Community Organizing Committee, which grew out of the Defenders' Oct. 10 Town Hall Meeting on the Burial Ground, then sprung into action to urge people to e-mail the commission members, urging them to make public the proposed marker text and to postpone finalizing the text until the community had a chance to weigh in on the content.



You can do this now by logging onto the Facebook page that Dr. Utsey has set up, reading the proposed text, and entering your comments and suggestions. For the details, please see the below e-mail that Dr. Utsey has sent to those who e-mailed the commission members.



One point: as it turns out, the proposed text mentions the contributions of the Defenders in this long struggle to reclaim and properly memorialize the Burial Ground. We are suggesting that that section be changed to refer to community organizations and advocates in general, because, as we have always insisted, many, many people have contributed to this struggle. That's not modesty, just a simple recognition of the mass nature of the movement that has brought us to this point today. And it's only mass action that will win this struggle.



Again, thank you so much for responding so quickly. You see, we really can speak Truth to Power.


Phil Wilayto

for the Defenders and Richmond's African Burial Ground Community Organizing Committee

…............................................

Dr. Utsey's e-mail:

Greetings. Thanks for your interest in the proper memorialization of Richmond's African Burial Ground and the ancestors who rest there. We, as members of the Slave Trail Commission, take our commitment to engaging the community in dialog about how to best pay homage to those Africans who helped build this country very seriously. As a consequence of the many inquires we received about the community having a voice in the final memorialization of the African Burial Ground, we have responded by creating a Facebook page where members of the community can go and view the current text for the Burial Ground and make comments/suggestions for the final text for the memorial.

We will give all comments/suggestions/recommendations careful consideration and incorporate suggestions where appropriate and possible. Please follow the link below to visit the Burial Ground Facebook page and make your comments. The other option to access the page is to send a "Friend Request" to the Burial Ground Facebook page and I will then invite you to the event so that you can make comments. Please let me know if you have any trouble signing on. Also, please share this information with all who might be interested in contributing to this memorial. Thanks.

Shawn



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February 1, 2011
The Defenders have been promoting an e-mail campaign to reclaim Richmond's African Burial Ground. The previous site has expired, so we've created a new site at:




We're trying to collect 1000 signatures, and could really use your help. You can sign even if you signed the earlier petition.
It'll just take a few seconds - really!

Once you're done, please ask your friends to sign the petition as well. Grassroots movements succeed because people like you are willing to spread the word! 



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30-40 VCU Students initiate and implement a powerful silent lie-in to bring awareness to the VCU campus about the need to stop the parking at Richmond's African Burial Ground. 3 video features were produced and published on WTVR CBS Channel 6, Nov. 18, 2010, for broadcast at 5 and 6pm. 




Shockoe Creek ran south and east to the river through a valley that started far to the north of the city in Henrico County, where Gabriel was born on the Brookfield Plantation of Thomas Prosser. The land surrounding the creek in the mile or so before it emptied into the James River was known as Shockoe Bottom and in this bottom was established Richmond's first municipal site to permit the burials of Black people. It was labeled "Burial Ground for Negroes" on an 18th century map of the small, but prospering city and since 2004 has been the focus of a concerted community effort to reclaim it from the invisibility of disregard and the pavement of a state-owned parking lot.