Shockoe Bottom African Burial Ground

Richmond's first municipal burial place for the city's Black residents was
  • Established 1799 on "Turpin parcel" hillside along Shockoe Creek, east of the Capitol.
  • Labeled "Burial Ground for Negroes" on 1809 Richmond city map.
  • "Phoenix," the first private Black cemetery, opened northwest of Shockoe Hill. 
  • Closed 1816. The same year, the second municipal "Burying Ground for Free People of Colour" and "Burying Ground for Negroes" (enslaved) opened on Shockoe Hill.
  • Land sold and developed privately, eventually owned by CSX Railroad.
  • Paved into a parking lot following construction of Interstate 95 in 1959.
  • Historic Highway Marker unveiled October 10, 2004 following symposium and march to site.
  • Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project established December 2004.
  • Community Struggle to Reclaim Richmond's African Burial Ground launched 2005.
  • "Meet Me in the Bottom: The Struggle to Reclaim Richmond's African Burial Ground" documentary by Shawn Utsey released 2009.
  • 2010 campaign: "Get Your Assphalt Off My Ancestors!" legal challenge to VCU's lack of action by Association for the Preservation of African and African American Antiquities.
  • Asphalt removed and grass laid July 2011.
  • Shockoe luxury stadium development defeated 2014.
  • Community Proposal and Campaign for a Memorial Park presented August 2015.
  • Memorial Park and National Slavery Museum incorporated in 2021 as centerpieces of planning for Shockoe Bottom's strategic development leading to city's 300th anniversary in 2037.
  • Click here to read a selection of resources.

On October 10, 2004, the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality sponsored a symposium and placement of a Department of Historic Resources historic highway marker titled "Gabriel's Execution." The marker was installed into the sidewalk overpass between 15th and 16th streets on E. Broad St. unveiled by descendant Dr. Haskell Bingham, with remarks by then Councilwoman Delores McQuinn, surrounded by 200 people that had marched from Centenary United Methodist Church to the site of the ceremony. Two months later, on December 10, the Defenders' "Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project" was formed to carry out the reclamation of Richmond's Black History in Shockoe Bottom by building awareness of the history and presence of the Burial Ground and of the significance of Gabriel's Rebellion to a more complete understanding of the post-Revolutionary new nation and Black people's efforts to end slavery. In 2019, a second symposium brought 22 scholars together to present more of the history of Richmond and Shockoe Bottom during slavery, and historic preservation efforts of other vanished or neglected Black cemeteries. In 2022, the Defenders' Sacred Ground Project held its 20th annual October 10 Gabriel Gathering on the Burial Ground site.  

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 three 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 go of manifest destiny as its driving principle. That we, as a people, are continuously expected to honor, by default, 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 problem here.



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 Valley. The African Burial Ground is located at 15th and E. Broad streets in this historic valley also the site of Richmond's original 32-block footprint, laid out by William Mayo at the commission of city founder William Byrd II, in 1737. Known only as a "Burial Ground for Negroes" on the1809 map drawn up by Richard Young, city surveyor, this African Burial Ground was active from 1799 through 1816.

The 1809 map also places a powder magazine on the property as early as 1785. The city's purchase of 3 acres known as the "Turpin parcel" in 1799 "may have marked the official beginning of the burial ground." (Smith 2020) The town council's decision to provide this burial place is notable for being Richmond's first to be designated for the burials of Black people, perhaps one of the earliest examples of the city's legally mandated racial segregation of a municipal resource.

For most of the time of the Sacred Ground Project's involvement in this history, this site was believed to be the site of execution of several of the enslaved and free men convicted of participation in the planned slave revolt of 1800, including its principle organizer and strategist, 24-year old enslaved blacksmith Gabriel. "Town gallows" is noted as present on the 1809 map. Historian Michael Nicholls, however, did extensive examination of the municipal records which show that the gallows at the African Burial Ground were not constructed until 1804 or later. It is more likely that Gabriel and his fellows were killed on "Gallow's Hill" (frequently referred to as "the usual place") near 1st and Canal streets. 

This change is reinforced by the apocryphal memories of Dr. John Dove as presented in 'The Human Bones on the Corner of First and Cary Streets,' Richmond Daily Dispatch, April 29, 1871, which states that: "Dr. Dove very plausibly suggests that the bones found, as we have stated, may be the remains of Gabriel, Solomon, and Peter, ringleaders in the famous Gabriel negro insurrection, who were executed in September, 1800, whose gallows stood near what is now the corner of 1st and Canal streets, and who were buried in the vicinity of the site of Captain Coke’s new residence." 

The first person to show me a copy of the 1871 article, was Brian Riley (VCU, MA History 2016), a former student of Phil Schwarz (VCU professor of History) who was also fascinated by and had written about Gabriel's Rebellion. Michael Nicholls, though, had already cited this article (Whispers of Rebellion 2016, pp. 85-86 and 206–7) and historian Ryan Smith's subsequent research (Death and Rebirth in a Southern City (2020, p. 52) make it almost certain that Dr. Dove remembered correctly.

Gallow's Hill is long gone; built over as the nineteenth century city expanded and finally eradicated by the construction of Interstate 195 in the 1970s. There is no mention of the fate of the bones uncovered that day in 1871, though two options are likely: they were reburied elsewhere with some respect or incorporated into the fill material of other infrastructure projects. Both these options could, intriguingly, associate the final resting place of Gabriel's bones with the the fate of Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground (1816-1879) and the contemporary wrestling with a posthumous respect for the dead and their meaning to the living. 

Richmond Slave Trail
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. Here is a link to the Trial's Facebook page.  


Before 2017

One of our Sacred Ground Project committee members is Dr. Autumn Rain. Dr. Rain graduated from the College of William & Mary in 2017 with a PhD in anthropology. She was part of the team that did research on the remains found at the New York African Burial Ground, and included both Richmond's African Burial Ground in Richmond and the "Cemetery of New Blacks" in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in her dissertation. 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). Click here to read an article from The Guardian about the Rio cemetery and commemoration efforts.

RABG Advocates Rolandah Cleopattrah, Donnell Brantley, Autumn Rain 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 to learn how you can help.


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 on 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 Organizing 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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