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Slaves' History Buried in Asphalt

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.

But last month, Michael L. Blakey, director of William & Mary's Institute for Historical Biology, said there was no reason to assume the mapmaker's label encompassed the entire cemetery. Blakey called the estimation of the boundary "implausibly small." He estimated that there could be graves under most, even all, of the parking lot, and recommended digging archaeological trenches, which would not disturb the remains, to determine the cemetery's scope.

"If it is important to the community," Blakey said, "there is a way to know the truth about the extent of the burials."

VCU officials said they recognize the site's historical and spiritual importance, and that is why they are ceding land for a memorial. But the only practical option is to use the remainder of the lot for student and staff parking because the university is relying on parking fees to pay for the purchase, said Don Gehring, VCU's vice president for government relations and health policy.

"We have reached a consensus that this is the most reasonable way to memorialize the site and recognize its significance and at the same time go forward with our purpose for parking," Gehring said. He said VCU would sell the property -- for the $3 million it is paying -- to anyone who wants to preserve the entire site.

Kathleen Kilpatrick, director of the historic resources department, said her staff reviewed available records and research to study the cemetery.

"Nothing short of archaeology will determine the actual boundaries," she said. "But I don't want to lose sight of the larger goal, which is how best to memorialize the site. The issue is where we go from here to get it right, to honor the people there and to educate the public." She said the department has agreed to work with the Slave Trail Commission to raise money to buy the land.

To some in the community, ownership of the land is a much deeper question than who holds the deed. "That land does not belong to Virginia Commonwealth University. It belongs to the black community of this city and this country," Phil Wilayto, a member of the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, a community group pushing for preservation, said this month at a community meeting.

"If this was George Washington's mother buried here, it wouldn't be a parking lot. It would be a nice grassy area," said Chavis, of Richmond. "Though we have moved forward, with Obama running for president, there are still these issues that are with us."

Richmond's is not the first such cemetery to be rediscovered. Freedmen's Cemetery in Alexandria, which opened in 1864 to bury former slaves, was forgotten for years but is now commemorated with a park. At the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan, uncovered in the early 1990s in a construction project, more than 400 skeletons were examined and then reburied at a site that has become a memorial.

Blakey, who was scientific director of the excavation and preservation for the New York burial ground, said the decision to excavate and study the Richmond remains should be the community's. Much of the recorded history of slaves was written by owners who considered them property, not people. But the New York graves, Blakey said, offered a glimpse of humanity.

"A story is written in things that were placed in the ground," Blakey said. "There is real reverence. Small things matter: the choice that was made to leave a silver earbob in a child's coffin rather than to keep it and use it for the living. That small act has great meaning."

Doug Egerton, a Le Moyne College history professor and author of a book about Gabriel, said the slave was 24 when he plotted to win freedom for slaves by seizing the capital and taking Governor James Monroe hostage. A furious storm disrupted his plan and the plot was uncovered.

Gabriel stood more than six feet, unusually tall for the time, Egerton said, and his remains could be under the lot.

"I think in many ways finding the bodies, learning what we can and placing them back with some kind of dignity and honor would be a real signal that Richmond can come together," Egerton said. He noted that there is a statue of George Washington not far from the graveyard. "There's no reason we can't honor Washington on his pedestal, and a mile away honor these people who also fought for freedom."

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