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Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground in Richmond gets landmark designation

The Shockoe Hill African Burial Ground as it appears today
Ryan Smith
The Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground as it appears today

A bus zooms by a seemingly abandoned lot. The interstate roars overhead. Across the street are two well-tended cemeteries. But this overgrown site has no tombstones. And yet, at least 22,000 African-American men, women and children are buried here.

The Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground was Richmond City’s primary burying ground for enslaved and free Black people who died between 1816 and 1879. Between then and now the story of the site is one of neglect and purposeful desecration. But last week, the site in Richmond finally earned recognition by state officials who voted to place it on the Virginia Landmarks Register.

“I think there’s a growing awareness that no one’s remains should be desecrated, should be treated casually or carelessly, as they have been frankly in the past for so many groups in the United States,” says Ryan Smith, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Smith is an expert in Richmond’s historic cemeteries, and part of the team who nominated this site, alongside the nearby Hebrew cemetery and Shockoe Hill cemetery, for historic recognition.

The other cemeteries nearby, well maintained and with markers, are already on the list of historic sites. But the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground, a sloping overgrown hillside featuring an abandoned gas station from the ‘60s, is not.

The team who worked on the sites’ nomination includes Smith, Dan Mouer, Steve Thompson, and Lenora McQueen – who has family members buried in the site. Thanks to their efforts the site has now earned a place alongside sites like Monticello, Colonial Williamsburg, and the state capital.

Smith says the ultimate goal is increased awareness.

A detail from the Cook Studio photograph taken ca. 1888 shows the hillside nearly a decade after the closing of the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground.
A detail from the Cook Studio photograph taken ca. 1888 shows the hillside nearly a decade after the closing of the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground.

“People don’t know that this site is here. They don’t know its history. People can come and they can see Hebrew cemetery, they can see Shockoe Hill cemetery, and there are tours and historic signage of those sites. But the rest of that historic district is not understood by residents or by visitors. And even by many family members too,” Smith says.

The state recognition now paves the way for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Sites. That would provide some protection from government development, including a possible expansion of nearby Interstate 64 and a planned railway project that would also impact the area.

Smith says telling the full story of the burial ground could help set a new path for historic preservation, one where we recognize and remember not just the origin story of sites like this burial ground, but also the following decades of purposeful neglect and destruction.

That history is laid out in the team’s 77-page nomination document. Parts of the document describe how graves and human remains were desecrated over the years as city officials sought to develop parts of the cemetery. Over the years the land has housed a gas station, an animal shelter, and the large pillars of an interstate overpass.

The authors of the report note that for white city leaders “the ground was too valuable to be used as a cemetery for Blacks,” and that “there can be no doubt that dozens - perhaps hundreds - of gravesites were destroyed in these construction projects.”

Richmond City now owns at least part of the lot and officials say they plan to preserve and commemorate the site.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Mallory Noe-Payne is a Radio IQ reporter based in Richmond.