Slaves' History Buried in Asphalt

Michael L. Blakey, a College of William & Mary professor, discusses the site of the burial ground at a community meeting this month in Richmond.
Michael L. Blakey, a College of William & Mary professor, discusses the site of the burial ground at a community meeting this month in Richmond. (By Lisa Billings For The Washington Post)
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By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 27, 2008

RICHMOND -- Barely audible over the whirr of traffic, Duron Chavis offered a prayer as he poured water into the earth at the edge of a parking lot between a train trestle and Interstate 95.

"We are here to honor our ancestors," Chavis told a group that encircled him one moonlit night this month. "Unfortunately, African Americans have been separated from our blood. We're disconnected from our languages, disconnected from our culture."

For the almost two dozen people gathered here, this nondescript slice of pavement represents a long-hidden heritage. Beneath the blacktop are the graves of slaves and free blacks from the 18th and 19th centuries. The city gallows once stood nearby, where a slave named Gabriel was hanged for planning a revolt.

Everyone agrees that the cemetery will be commemorated. But exactly how to do that has led to debate in a city that was once the capital of the Confederacy and still struggles with those ghosts.

The state's largest school, Virginia Commonwealth University, bought the parking lot this year and has agreed to carve out a piece of it for a public memorial. But a prominent anthropologist at the College of William & Mary, along with many residents, contends that the graves probably extend beyond the strip that the university is donating. They are leading a movement to identify and reclaim the entire site.

"We want all of it," said Dieyah Rasheed, who lives in nearby Henrico County. "It is sacred to me as a black woman. My ancestors were buried there. They were the ones who built Richmond. They were the nurses. They were the maids. They were the field croppers. They deserve some honor and respect."

The 250-year-old cemetery, used until about 1816, faded from public memory as the city grew up around it. But several years ago, a local historian stumbled on records of its existence. Gabriel was executed there after a failed 1800 rebellion, and some historians believe he could be buried there. Last year, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) symbolically pardoned Gabriel and said his "quest for freedom was part of a great American legacy."

In recent years, the city has made efforts to commemorate the trials and contributions of slaves. The Richmond Slave Trail Commission has created a walking tour from the James River port where slaves arrived, to a slave jail that is being excavated. The trail also includes a slavery reconciliation statue that was unveiled last year.

Still, some African Americans note the proliferation of memorials here to the Confederate past. Monument Avenue honors Confederate leaders such as Robert E. Lee, Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart. One exception is a statue of black tennis great Arthur Ashe.

The drive to preserve the cemetery gained momentum after VCU bought the three-acre downtown lot for $3 million in February. A few months later, as the university took steps to repave the lot and improve its lighting, a small grass-roots protest raised questions about the project's impact on a place of historical interest. Work was halted to allow the state to delve into the land's history.

In June, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources concluded that much of the old cemetery and the site of the gallows lay under the interstate and that old records don't define the burial ground's limits. It's unclear how large the cemetery was. But some graves are believed to extend past the highway and into the parking lot, under 10 to 15 feet of fill.

The department, drawing on the work of a local historian, also considered the possibility that the graveyard's edges could be defined by a label on an 1810 map that notes "Burial Ground for Negroes." VCU, citing that interpretation, has agreed to turn over a 50- by 200-foot piece of the lot, worth about $350,000, to the city for a memorial.

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