A History of the Second African Burial Groundprepared by Dennis Bussey, James River Hikers, 2017
In 1810 “sundry persons of colour” petitioned for a new ground for a graveyard to replace the "Burial Ground for Negroes" in Shockoe Bottom.
In 1816 the city of Richmond established a new Negro Burying Ground in a location near the Almshouse and what became Shockoe Cemetery. The new burying ground included separate areas set aside for free blacks and slaves. While freed blacks were allowed to build a wall separating themselves from the slaves they declined to segregate themselves. A gravedigger was employed for $1.25 per grave.
The cemetery has been given different names on various maps and documents:
- Potter's Field
- New Negro Burying Ground
- "Grave yard for free people of color (one acre plus another acre) For Slaves"
- Burial ground on Poor-house Hill
- Second African Burial Ground
This final name appears to be the best choice for a current name as it links directly to its predecessor at Shockoe Bottom that was titled “Burial Ground for Negroes” on the 1809 Richard Young planning map for the city, and most recently named “Richmond African Burial Ground.” or, in discussions about both sites, referred to as the First African Burial Ground.
1835 Bates map showing “Grave Yard for Free people of Colour” and “For Slaves.” It also shows the “Poor House”, the gunpowder magazine, the “Jew’s Cemetery” now Hebrew Cemetery, and the “New Burying Ground” that was to become Shockoe Hill Cemetery.
1876 Beers map calls the cemetery area “Potters Field” and a “Colored Alms House has been built in an area that would later become a cemetery which is still in use as an extension of burials for Black and Jewish residents.
In the wake of the 1831 Nate Turner insurrection, legal restrictions prohibited blacks from independently burying their dead. An 1832 statue mandated, “ Slaves, free negroes and mulattoes are prohibited from preaching, schooling, conducting or holding an assembly or meeting for religious or other purposes” thereby requiring a white man always be present at any meetings including a funeral.
Dawn on April 3, 1865, the day the Confederates evacuated Richmond, a powder magazine was blown up to prevent it from being captured. The explosion spewed coffins and skeletons from underground and raked the almshouse premises, killing eleven of the paupers. Twenty yards of the northern wall of Shockoe Hill Cemetery wall was leveled.
The Poor House, built in 1805, was completely rebuilt in 1860 as an almshouse and was at one time the third largest building in Richmond, second only to the Capitol Building and the Penitentiary. It was used as General Hospital #1 during most of the Civil War. It was variously known as The General Hospital, City Home Hospital and Alms House Hospital by was officially as General Hospital No. 1. It was used for many years as City Alms House after the war, and renamed Richmond Nursing Home. The City Hospital, built before 1848, became the city's Colored Almshouse after the Civil War, just across 4th St from Shockoe Hill Cemetery.
In the early 1880s Chris Baker, a janitor at the Medical College of Virginia along with medical students trolled the cemetery to procure newly deceased for anatomical studies for a fee of $10 each. Convicted for one such raid in 1882, he was pardoned the next day by governor William Cameron. In 1884 legislation created the state anatomical board empowering it to procure bodies for dissection from the penitentiary, jails and almshouses thereby putting body snatchers out of business.*
In 1959 the Richmond City Council rezoned for industrial use, “an eroded hillside that once set aside as a Negro burying ground – one acre for slaves and one for freed Negroes”, and claimed that, “Records fail to disclose whether it was ever used for the purposes for which it was designated.
City officials were wrong. Below is an 1862 listing of 189 burials at the site. Many indicate the name of those who ”owned” them and others who were “free.” There are no known records of burials between 1816 and 1862, which is partially understandable as many were slaves and indigents for whom little attention was made.
It is estimated that 15,000 to 20,000 were buried at the Second African Burial Ground from it’s beginning in 1816 until it no longer appeared on Richmond’s maps in about 1906.
There is no signage or anything else at the site to inform that any of this ever happened. This project intends to correct this disservice, educate the public and attempt to provide a degree of dignity for the many who endured and suffered through this unsavory part of our history.
*You can learn more about this history and the East Marshall Street Well Project at www.emsw.vcu.edu.