JUNE 2008 ACTION ALERT
A Call to Action:
It's Time to Reclaim Richmond's African Burial Ground!
The Richmond community, especially
Richmond's Black community, is facing an immediate and historic challenge: Can we rescue the city's oldest Black cemetery?
Or will we miss this fragile and narrow opportunity to finally win respect for the ancestors who have been as disrespected
in death as they were in life? Will we miss the potential to increase the body of scientific and cultural knowledge of colonial
Richmond? Will we, in fact, once again negotiate away the Black community’s right to self-determination?
Virginia Commonwealth University
has purchased the parking lot at 15th and East Broad streets under which lies the more-than-200-year-old “Burial
Ground for Negroes.” This is the oldest Black cemetery in Richmond and one of the oldest in the entire country. It is
also the site of the execution, on Oct. 10, 1800, of the great slave rebellion leader Gabriel. VCU has temporarily closed
the parking lot, saying it intends to “upgrade” it.
This is the opportunity
for the community to finally reclaim this sacred ground – if we act now.
CONTACT THE RELEVANT
IMMEDIATELY contact the public
officials listed below and demand:
1. No reopening of the parking
2. No “upgrading”
of the parking lot.
3. No division of the site
into a parking lot and a small memorial area.
4. Reclaim the entire site
and - in consultation with Richmond's Black community - devise a plan to properly memorialize the Burial Ground.
Please immediately contact:
of the President
W. Franklin St.
President Richmond City Council
Slave Trail Commission of Richmond City Council
Phone: (804) 646-5429; Office Fax: (804) 646-5468
the governor's committee that in July will dedicate a Civil Rights monument in Capital Square)
1111 East Broad Street
Richmond, VA 23219
804.786.1201; Fax: 804.371.0038
(VCU is a state institution. That means the governor is now the highest official involved in this issue.)
Henry Building, 3rd Floor
1111 East Broad St.
Richmond, VA 23219
(804) 786-2211; Fax: (804) 371-6351
And please send the Defenders
copies of e-mails, faxes or written messages to the above officials.
This is very important. VCU
is claiming there is little or no community interest on this issue.
Sacred Ground Project
23202, Richmond, VA 23223
DefendersFJE@hotmail.org; Web site: www.DefendersFJE.org
COME TO THE SITE
Visit the Burial Ground. Bring
flowers and other mementos to leave in honor of the ancestors. Conduct libation ceremonies. Pray. Sing. Meditate. Take a stand.
Make it plain and visible that the community cares what happened here so long ago.
HOLD A VIGIL
As often as we have been able,
supporters of the Burial Ground have been gathering each day at noon at the Gabriel Marker on Broad Street. We stand holding
our homemade signs: “Save Richmond's African Burial Ground!” “Build a memorial, not a parking lot!”
“Defend Richmond's Black History.” “If you pave it, we won't park!” Be creative – make your
own signs. You'll be surprised at how much support you'll receive from passing motorists and pedestrians.
RAISE YOUR VOICE
2008 is an election year. There
are now seven people running to become Richmond's next mayor – including Rev. Dwight Jones and William Pantele. And
Councilwoman McQuinn is up for re-election. We can make the Burial Ground an issue – in the campaigns for mayor, City
Council, School Board, Congress – even the presidency, now that Virginia has achieved “swing-state” status.
Where will Barack Obama stand on this issue?
And remember, since VCU has
purchased the Burial Ground site, this is now a state matter. That means that we can – and should – demand that
Gov. Tim Kaine take a stand. The timing is especially good, since the governor and First Lady Ann Holton plan to unveil the
state's first Civil Rights Memorial on Capital Square on July 21. How much more appropriate and historic that ceremony will
be if Gov. Kaine has first ordered the permanent closing of the offending parking lot? And how totally empty and hypocritical
would such a ceremony be if he does not? And in that case, wouldn't it be much more appropriate to hold a protest demonstration
at Capital Square - if such a protest were led by the Black community? And, since Gov. Kaine is a national co-chair of the
Obama campaign, and is being mentioned as a possible running mate, wouldn't such a protest receive national attention? Wouldn't
it, Gov. Kaine?
As luck would have it, there
will be several opportunities this month to raise the issue of the Burial Ground. Please try and attend at least some of these
events. Raise your voice. Don't assume someone else is do it, or can do it. We must become our own leaders.
ATTEND THESE EVENTS
& ASK THIS QUESTION: “Do you support the permanent closing of the parking lot and – in consultation with
the Black community - properly memorializing the site of the 'Burial Ground for Negroes?”
Tues., June 17, 7 p.m. - Regular monthly meeting of the Richmond Crusade for Voters – scheduled speakers include
Richmond Slave Trail Commission Chair Delores McQuinn and Sheriff C.T. Woody. 2220 Chamberlayne Ave.
Thurs., June 19 – 6:30-8:00 p.m. - Councilwoman McQuinn to hold East End 7th District Meeting - The meeting will
include: East End 7th District Community Concerns; District Crime Statistics - Powhatan Hill Recreation Center, 5051 North
Hampton St. For more information, please contact Sam Patterson, at 804.646.3012, or email@example.com
Thurs., June 19 – 6 – 8 p.m. - Mayoral Candidates Forum –
Plant Zero, 7 E. 3rd St., just south of the Manchester Bridge. Sponsored by the Richmond Crusade for Voters and the Coalition
for a Greater Richmond. This will be one of the best opportunities to question all the candidates about their position on
the Burial Ground.
Fri., June 20, 4 p.m. - JUNETEENTH, A FREEDOM CELEBRATION - Social Change,
Hip-Hop & Election 2008- featuring dead prez, Fashions, Discussion, African Dance & Music, Vendors, Food - Greater
Richmond Convention Center.
Sat., June 21 - JUNETEENTH, A FREEDOM CELEBRATION “In Our Ancestor’s
Footsteps” featuring Torch Lit Light Walk Along Trail of Enslaved Africans - A Healing Ceremony will take
place at the site of The Burial Ground for Negroes along the Trail of Enslaved Africans. Elegba Folklore Society - www.efsinc.org
Wed., July 2, 8 p.m. - [Good place to leaflet] - Legendary poet-musician Gil
Scott-Heron will appear with his band at Toad’s Place, 140 Virginia St. Opening the show will be jazz-funk group,
Plunky & Oneness. General admission will be $25. Doors open at 7:00PM. For further information
contact: Plunky 804-355-3586.
Sun., July 20 - Civil Rights Memorial Symposium at the Library of Virginia
Mon., July 21 - Civil Rights Memorial Unveiling and Dedication on Capital
It's Time to
Reclaim Richmond's African Burial Ground!
to the present crisis --
“Burial Ground for Negroes” lies abandoned under a rundown parking lot just north of East Broad Street, east of
the VCU Medical Center and west of the railroad overpass that crosses Broad Street. Before the Barton Heights cemetery was
opened in 1807, this was the only municipal cemetery that accepted Black people. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of both enslaved
and free Africans were buried there, along with poor whites and executed criminals. This was also the site of the city's gallows,
where the great slave rebellion leader Gabriel was hung on Oct. 10, 1800.
this year, Virginia Commonwealth University – a state institution funded by our tax money - quietly reacquired the 1.6
acre site that includes the burial ground. Defenders have known and reported for some time that VCU's Master Plan included
plans to “upgrade” the parking lot. And, despite recent public pronouncements to the contrary, VCU's top officials
have known for years about the Burial Ground. (We have copies of our e-mail exchanges on the subject with VCU officials.)
May, photographer Shanna Merola and WRIR radio host Kenneth Yates learned that VCU was planning to start “upgrading”
the parking lot. A few days later, the lot was closed so the renovation work could begin. Signs were placed stating the lot
would be closed for the month of June. Those signs have since been removed.
2, Merola, Yates, Jackson Ward businessman Dawoud Shakur, members of the Defenders and others held a protest vigil at the
Gabriel Marker on East Broad, just above the parking lot. The protest received broad media coverage, moving a range of public
figures to speak out against repaving the site. These include Virginia General Assembly Legislative Black Caucus Chair Dwight
Jones; Richmond City Council President William Pantele; City Council Vice President Delores McQuinn, who chairs the council's
Slave Trail Commission; the preservationist group ACORN; Virginia Friends of Mali; United Parents Against Lead; and more.
Significantly, Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder – a well-paid VCU employee - has refused to comment on the issue.
Rev. Jones, Rev. McQuinn and Council President Pantele met with VCU representatives and Kathleen Kilpatrick, director of the
Virginia State Department of Historic Resources, to discuss the issue. Unfortunately, this meeting was held without the knowledge,
participation or input of the community. As a result of this meeting, VCU on June 6 issued a joint statement with the Slave
Trail Commission agreeing to “suspend” work on the parking lot while an investigation is conducted to determine
exactly where the Burial Ground lies.
struggle to reclaim this sacred ground has been going on for a long time. For the record, it was Richmond historian Elizabeth
Kambourian who, back around 1992, discovered the city map that shows the “Burial Ground for Negroes” and the city
gallows just north of what would today be 15th and East Broad streets. Kambourian, who found the map at the Library of Virginia
while researching a book on Gabriel, made a presentation about her findings at the Black History Museum & Cultural Center
of Virginia. Janine Bell, founder and director of the Elegba Folklore Society, was in the audience and invited Kambourian
to make a presentation to the city's Slave Trail Commission, of which Bell is vice chair. Elegba also incorporated the Burial
Ground site into its annual “Night Walk on the Trail of Enslaved Africans,” a trail that had been rediscovered
by the Richmond-based group Hope in the Cities. City Councilman Sa'ad El-Amin, founder and first chair of the Slave Trail
Commission, took up the issue with a vengeance, pushing for the city to acquire the site, close the parking lot and properly
memorialize the Burial Ground. The first media coverage of the rediscovery of the Burial Ground was a series of articles in
the Richmond Free Press by staff writer Phil Wilayto, who now edits the Defenders' bimonthly newspaper, The Richmond Defender.
The Defender was founded to help publicize the existence of the Burial Ground.
Richmond’s City Council unanimously adopted a resolution, introduced by Councilman El-Amin, honoring Gabriel as a “patriot
and freedom fighter.” Henrico County Supervisor Frank Thornton led the effort for Henrico to memorialize the site where
Gabriel's Rebellion was planned. Henrico also includes the story of Gabriel on its official Web site. The county also has
two state highway markers that tell the story of the Rebellion.
2004, the Defenders completed a year long process with the Department of Historic Resources to establish the “Gabriel
Marker” that now overlooks the Burial Ground site. This was the origin of the Defenders' Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation
Project. The dedication ceremony, on the 204th anniversary of Gabriel's execution, was preceded by a symposium that included
Elizabeth Kambourian; Elvatrice Parker Belsches, also a Richmond historian; Dr. Michael L. Blakey, an anthropologist and lead
researcher for the New York African Burial Ground; Dr. Douglas Egerton, author of “Gabriel’s Rebellion and the
Slave Insurrections of 1800 and 1802”; and Gabriel descendant Dr. Haskell Bingham. This marker remains the first and
only official physical recognition within Richmond city limits to affirm Gabriel’s Rebellion, the site of the gallows
where he and some of his proud co-conspirators were executed, as well as the location of the Burial Ground itself.
Defenders' Sacred Ground project also played a leading role in stopping D.C. Developers, the City and the Richmond Braves
baseball club from building a commercial sports stadium on the site of Richmond's former slave market area, on the south side
of Broad Street, opposite the Burial Ground.
important to note that this struggle to reclaim the Burial Ground, the slave market sites and the memory of Gabriel didn't
begin with the work of the Defenders, Elizabeth Kambourian or the Slave Trail Commission. Ever since Gabriel's execution in
1800, Richmond's Black community has kept alive the memory of Gabriel and the thousands of enslaved Africans, free Blacks
and allies among white artisans and Native Americans who joined his call for a mass rebellion against slavery. For years,
the women's organization Fertile Ground held ceremonies at the site on the anniversary of Gabriel's death. Community activists
in Highland Park have created a park and named it after Gabriel. The Richmond division of the UNIA-ACL, founded by the Honorable
Marcus Garvey, is named after Gabriel and anti-slavery crusader Sojourner Truth. Gabriel's descendants, now led by Dr. Haskell
Bingham of Petersburg, have passed down the oral history of Gabriel and the struggle he led.
The present danger
now at an absolutely critical point in this long struggle to reclaim the Burial Ground for Negroes and the site of Gabriel's
execution. We are facing two immediate dangers:
that VCU will indefinitely postpone upgrading the parking lot, but will reopen it for parking cars. The lot is now closed.
WE MUST SEIZE THIS OPPORTUNITY TO DECLARE IT CLOSED FOREVER.
two, that people speaking in the name of the community will agree to a compromise with VCU. Already, VCU spokeswoman Pam Lepley
has stated that only a “small part” of the parking lot includes a cemetery. That sentiment has unfortunately been
echoed by Slave Trail Commission Chair Delores McQuinn. The Richmond Times-Dispatch has editorialized that the parking lot
should be repaved. The danger here is that VCU, the Department of Historic Resources and the Slave Trail Commission –
which, according to a McQuinn-sponsored city ordinance, has legal responsibility for the city's approach to the site –
may cut a deal allowing VCU to set aside a small part of the parking lot for a marker, plaque or memorial – and then
“upgrade” the rest of the site for continued use as a parking lot.
would be a criminal insult both to the ancestors and to their descendants, who include many thousands of Richmond's present-day
Black residents. The simple truth is that no one knows how large the graveyard area is. The parking lot must be permanently
closed. Then there needs to be an investigation into what actually lies below the lot. This can mean an archaeological dig
– such is already happening right now just blocks away at the site of the former Lumpkin's Jail. Or it could mean using
the latest technology to explore the ground below the lot without the need for an actual dig. But either way, THIS
SACRED GROUND MUST NEVER AGAIN BE DEBASED BY USING IT AS A PLACE TO PARK CARS.
What's at stake
opinion, what will make the difference is the intervention of the community – the entire community, but primarily the
Black community – WHICH ALONE HAS THE RIGHT TO DETERMINE THE FUTURE OF THE BURIAL GROUND SITE. This is a simple expression
of the right to self-determination for a people long oppressed by racism and economic exploitation. In this sense, fighting
to reclaim the Burial Ground means fighting to reclaim the right for the Black community as a whole to determine its own destiny
can the City, its officials and its residents allow 1,500 mostly Black inmates to suffer day after day in 100-plus degrees
heat in a dangerous, overcrowded and dilapidated City Jail? How can they sit by as more than 10,000 extremely low-income public
housing residents stand to lose their homes because of orders from Washington being faithfully carried out by officials of
the Richmond Redevelopment & Housing Authority? How can they co-exist with a 20 percent poverty rate in the state's capital
allow our ancestors to be disrespected once again, how can we claim respect or justice for ourselves and the most vulnerable
is at stake here. This challenge comes up on our collective watch. What we do or don't do today will be judged by the generations
to come. And not just here in Richmond. This city was not only a center for the slave trade and the “capital of the
Confederacy.” It also claims the title of Birthplace of the Black Nation. It was here that many different peoples from
throughout West Africa were robbed of their culture and heritage, but who managed, through amazing courage and determination,
to forge a new collective identity. Shockoe Bottom, more than any other single piece of land in North America, was where this
transformation took place – in the slave pens run by Lumpkin and Omohundro, in the auction houses that lined 15th Street,
in the rites and rituals that surrounded the internment of our ancestors in the Burial Ground for Negroes – which we
should rename Richmond's African Burial Ground.
Submitted June 15, 2008, by:
Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project
Ana Edwards, Chair
c/o Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality
PO Box 23202
Richmond, VA 23223
Phone (804) 644-5834
Web site: www.DefendersFJE.org