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How a University of Richmond researcher uncovered the campus's forgotten connection to slavery

How a University of Richmond researcher uncovered the campus's forgotten connection to slavery

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How a University of Richmond researcher discovered the campus's forgotten connection to slavery

In 1947, construction workers expanding a road on the campus of the University of Richmond unearthed the skeletal remains of two people. According to an article and photo in The Richmond News Leader, the site was a burial ground for enslaved workers who lived there 100 years earlier. A 1901 topographical map includes the words "grave yard."

On the campus of the University of Richmond, there is a grassy triangle of land southeast of Westhampton Lake. Dotted with oak and pine trees, the green space extends up a hill from Richmond Way and is trimmed by two university buildings.

Some 180 years ago, the space served as a cemetery for the enslaved people who lived and worked on a plantation that used to exist there. University leaders knew about the cemetery when they bought the land in 1910. They knew it in the 1940s and again in the 1950s when the graves were discovered during construction projects.

But the university made no acknowledgment of the people or the land’s purpose. Construction continued undeterred, and some of the bodies were exhumed and seemingly placed in other unmarked graves.

By the 21st century, the history of the cemetery largely had been forgotten. Recently, a university researcher named Shelby Driskill rediscovered it, piecing together topographical maps, newspaper clippings and university correspondence to identify the small chunk of land once called a “burying ground.”

The land tells the story not only of slavery, Driskill said, but also of the attempt to erase a community’s place in history.

Last month, the University of Richmond acknowledged the area for the first time by erecting a sign that calls the ground “consecrated space.” While UR is continuing to discuss how to address it, other universities across the country also are acknowledging the enslaved people who lived and died on their land. This fall, Clemson University researchers discovered 600 unmarked graves on the South Carolina school’s campus.

Ed Ayers, a history professor and former UR president, is part of the university’s committee to address its past. When he was UR’s president from 2007 to 2015, he was unaware of the hillside burying ground near Westhampton Lake.

“You see the knowledge of this cannot be hidden,” Ayers said. “Unfortunately, it can be forgotten.”

shelby driskill douglas broome.jpg

Shelby Driskill, a University of Richmond researcher, learned about a "burying ground" on campus where enslaved workers had been laid to rest. Her husband, Douglas Broome, combined a 1901 map with modern maps using GIS software to identify cemetery's exact location.


Driskill decided to go back to school in the fall of 2017. She works as a library assistant, holds a master of fine arts degree and was interested in teaching writing. So she enrolled in the Master of Liberal Arts program at UR and began studying the civil rights movement and child labor.

A year later, Driskill enrolled in an undergraduate class that piqued her interest called Digital Memory and the Archive. The students were assigned a project: Use digital tools to examine understudied people.

Driskill, 50, learned about a book written in 1935 that told the story of a Black community in the late 1800s that lived on the land west of where the university now stands. The settlement was called Ziontown. The 65-page book, written by Howard Harlan, was titled “Zion Town: A Study in Human Ecology.”

Ziontown and UR map.JPG

A map in the 1935 book "Zion Town: A Study in Human Ecology," displayed the location of a Black community that formed west of the University of Richmond in the late 1800s.

The book notes that at some point, a gang of laborers working near the Westhampton Lake dam uncovered a pile of bones and skulls that were believed to mark the site of an old burying ground for Ben Green’s slaves.

While Driskill refers to the space as the Westham burying ground, the original name for the cemetery is unknown.

Before Ziontown was built, and before its Black residents were emancipated, the UR campus was a plantation called Westham, owned by Green, a prominent Richmond businessman and slave owner. His land stretched for 492 acres, and he lived in a two-story brick house built in a Federal architectural style with a plain brick façade. During the Civil War, his house served as a field hospital, and it still stands today at 6510 Three Chopt Road.

Driskill discovered there was no historical marker identifying the cemetery. She asked her instructor, Nicole Maurantonio, about the cemetery, and Maurantonio gave her a 1947 article published in The Richmond News Leader. The front-page story was accompanied by a three-column photo. The headline read “Human Bones Unearthed at U. of R.”

A group of workers unearthed two skeletons when they were widening a campus road. The short article explained that it appeared the deceased had been buried in coffins, and that according to tradition, it was believed that they were the bodies of enslaved people buried there more than 100 years earlier.

The article stated the remains were found near the university lake, suggesting it was the same site as the one mentioned in Harlan’s book. But it was still unclear where exactly the cemetery had been located. It wasn’t until three months later that Driskill finally had a breakthrough in her research.

She began studying the land before the University of Richmond bought it in 1910. Eight years before the university arrived, an architectural firm, the Olmsted Brothers, had drawn topographical maps and designed a park along the lake with a dancing pavilion, performance area and gondola rides that opened in 1902.

The Olmsted Brothers firm was started by Frederick Law Olmsted, who was called the nation’s foremost park designer and the founder of American landscape architecture. In recent years, the Frederick Law Olmsted Historic Site in Massachusetts has collected more than 1 million historic maps and images. Many of them have been digitized and published on Flickr.

Driskill was sick with the flu, searching for images of Westhampton Park, when she found a significant piece to the puzzle — a 1901 topographical map drawn by the Olmsted firm. To the east of the lake were written the words “grave yard.”

“If not for them, the history may not be known,” Driskill said.

UR burying ground zoomed in map.jpg

A 1901 topographical map of Westhampton Park, which is now the University of Richmond campus, notes the words "grave yard" to the east of Westhampton pond. The University of Richmond was aware of the cemetery when it purchased the land in 1910. 

ur burying ground westhampton park map.JPG

The Westhampton Park topographical map in its entirety. The words "grave yard" are located at the bottom of the map halfway across the image.

Next, Driskill enlisted the help of her husband, Douglas Broome, who works in the IT department at UR. Coincidentally, Broome was enrolled at the time in a geographic information system certification program at the university. He took the 1901 map and overlaid two newer topographical maps, matching them together with thousands of data points.

With the modern maps combined with the older one, Driskill could now identify the location of the burying ground with a significant degree of accuracy. It was tucked between Puryear Hall and Richmond Hall on the eastern side of campus, just a few steps from the university bookstore.


Driskill’s class had ended, but she continued with her research. She learned that when the university was being built, university leaders knew they were building on top of a cemetery, and they kept building anyway.

In 1910, the University of Richmond, then known as Richmond College, bought the land where its campus currently sits. The college was designed to be built in the center of a large property development intended for white families.

Two years later, plans were underway to build a road near Westhampton Lake called Richmond Way. When the construction crew cleared away the brush, they found at least 20 graves where the road was supposed to go. The landscape architect, Warren H. Manning, wrote that the human remains should be moved to a cemetery because building the road would require disturbing them. Leaving the remains nearby would subject them to students’ pranks, he said.

“Knowledge of this cannot be hidden,” Manning wrote. More than 100 years later, that phrase has become sort of a rallying cry for Driskill’s research.

At the time the university was under construction, Virginia law prohibited building over graveyards. But the president of the board of trustees, J. Taylor Ellyson, wrote back to Manning and said there would be no legal trouble in regard to the cemetery.

It is unclear what happened to the remains, and they weren’t mentioned in subsequent letters. But the road was built seemingly as designed, and by 1915, whatever markers may have stood to identify the graves were gone.

In three total instances, remains were encountered during university construction. All three times, the building of roads and tunnels prevailed.

In 1947, when the road was widened and two more bodies were discovered, a similar level of disregard was exhibited. The remains were exhumed and reburied several hundred feet away, according to The Richmond News Leader. The new burial site was never found, but it could exist beyond UR’s borders on the land owned by the Country Club of Virginia-Westhampton.

RTD Nov. 1 1947.JPG

The following day, the Richmond Times-Dispatch published a shorter article about the disturbance of the graves.

The next day, The Richmond News Leader published an editorial, which Driskill believes was written by Douglas Southall Freeman, editor of the paper. The piece argued that giving attention to forgotten lives was counterproductive. Doing so would turn the world into “a cemetery in which there would not be room for men to till and harvest.”

“That willingness to dismiss is emblematic of an overall attitude that extended long after enslavement that relegated Black people to second-class citizenship, even in death,” Driskill said.

The site was disturbed again in 1955 or 1956, when work on steam tunnels uncovered a “series of graves.” The bodies were exhumed and reinterred in another location that was never discovered.


Another element of Driskill’s research was to learn about the lives of the enslaved people who lived and worked on the plantation.

There was a woman named Annica, and her name suggests that maybe her ancestors came to America from present-day Nigeria. She first appeared in records in 1821. She was a field hand at Middle Quarter, a plantation in Tuckahoe owned by John Wickham.

She and her husband, Phil, had at least four children. Phil was noted by Wickham as “a pretty good plowman” and “not to be trusted.” In the years that followed, Phil disappeared from the records.

In 1847, Annica was sold away from her family to Ben Green, taking her to the plantation where the University of Richmond now exists. She was the last of 115 people auctioned off that day, and she was sold for just $5, indicating that either she was, at age 43, unable to bear children, or disabled. In today’s currency, $5 is worth about $160.

Much higher values were placed on younger women. Jenny was sold for $385, and Dolly and her child were priced at $350, according to auction records obtained by Driskill. Annica disappeared from the public record after 1847.

The lives of the people enslaved at Green’s plantation are central to the story of the burying ground located on UR’s campus, Driskill said.

“Their individual histories are at the heart of that history,” she said.

UR burying ground steam tunnel map.png

By combining two modern University of Richmond maps with a 1901 topographical map that identified the “grave yard,” Driskill was able to find the exact location of the slave burial ground.

At some point, the fact that there was a cemetery in the middle of the UR campus was forgotten from the collective memory of the university.

In January, Driskill published her 20,000-word report online and called it “Paths to the Burying Ground.” In November, the university installed the first piece of signage acknowledging the cemetery.

“It shows a richer understanding of an ugly past,” said Lauranett Lee, a visiting lecturer at UR who worked with Driskill and is leading the study of the burying ground. In January, Lee and Driskill coauthored a report to the university. 

The university formed a committee to reach out to the descendants of the enslaved people who lived there and later to decide how to proceed. A class of UR students made a video about the topic intended to commemorate the lives of the Indigenous and Black enslaved people who lived on the land before the university arrived. The students titled the video “Knowledge of This Cannot be Hidden.”

“When we deny the existence of a cemetery, we deny the existence of a people,” the video begins.

Ayers said he hopes that if people can stand exactly where the enslaved where buried, if people can learn their names and their histories and their families, our modern-day society might come to better comprehend the suffering and injustice that took place in the U.S. for more than 200 years.

Recently, the university employed a ground-penetrating radar to examine the underground to determine whether human remains still existed. The testing proved inconclusive.

Driskill may never know who was laid to rest in the burying ground southeast of Westhampton Lake. She may never know whose remains still lie there beneath the earth. Out of respect for them, she doesn’t want to speculate.

“We just know they were people who mattered,” Driskill said.



Eric Kolenich writes about higher education, sports, coronavirus and protests for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He joined the newspaper in 2009 after graduating from the University of Virginia with a degree in English. (804) 649-6109

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