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'It’s a good beginning' - Historical marker placed at Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground

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The Virginia Department of Historic Resources unveiled a historical highway marker for the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground on Sunday afternoon.

The Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground, also known as Richmond’s Second African Burial Ground, was added to the Virginia Landmarks Register at DHR’s quarterly board meeting on March 17.

The site is believed to be the largest burial ground for free people of color and the enslaved in the U.S. with an estimated 22,000 people of African descent buried there.

“This is a very exciting moment,” said Lenora McQueen, the descendant of a person buried at the site. “It’s very meaningful to finally have this place have a marker and to be seen, to be known and no longer forgotten.”

McQueen came to Richmond four years ago to learn more about her fourth great-grandmother, Kitty Cary, an enslaved woman born in Virginia. At 1305 N. Fifth St., the only remnants of the burial ground where she was laid to rest was an abandoned service station and cracked pavement.

The Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground was established in 1816 for people of color and enslaved people. What began as two acres of land soon expanded to encompass up to 31 acres.

After closing in 1879 from overcrowding, the site has become one of Virginia’s most endangered historic sites. The addition of streets and railroads, the expansion of private projects and more have threatened the integrity of the site. Today, the DC2RVA passenger rail project and the proposed widening of Interstate 64 are active threats to the burial ground’s site.

The burying ground “has integrity of setting and feeling that are the result of its historic function as a cemetery for African American Richmonders, as well as its subsequent erasure from public memory and redevelopment during the 20th century,” according to the site’s historic register entry.

“There are still many, many threats to this burial ground,” McQueen said, “and there’s still a lot of work to be done. Still, it is the beginning, but it’s a good beginning.”

After discovering the site and its lack of recognition, McQueen became what Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney described as a “champion” for the burial ground. The unveiling of the marker at Shockoe Hill was to pay respects and honor the enslaved, Stoney said.

“I take my role not only as mayor seriously, but I take my role as a Black mayor in the former capital of the Confederacy seriously,” Stoney said. “And when you have moments like today, what I always recount is that there could always be another person in this seat. There could always be another person in our seats that don’t look like us for many generations, decades, ignoring and neglecting moments like this.”

The program for Virginia’s historical roadside markers was launched in 1927, making it the country’s oldest marker highway program, said Colita Nichols Fairfax, a Norfolk State University professor who also serves on the Virginia Board of Historic Resources.

In 1976, the state stopped funding new markers, meaning private organizations, historical societies, churches and more had to go through a rigorous application process to sponsor a new marker. The Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground marker, placed just by the road, received unanimous approval from the Board of Historic Resources at a board meeting in June 2021 and was sponsored by the Department of Historic Resources.

“Cemeteries have a deep and abiding connection to descendants,” Fairfax said. “The plan for this sacred space mirrors the plight of our sacred communities, mirrors what happened to Black communities in the 20th and 21st centuries. Years of systemic neglect, years of people removal, years of gentrification, but in spite of that, let us not stick in the trauma.”

During the ceremony, Livi Booker, a student at Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School, read an excerpt from the marker once it was revealed. The marker stands tall and can be seen clearly from the road.

“I think one of the things that I like best about programs like this is that we get to take a moment to determine the way in which we are going to engage in the totality of what this site represents to us as members of the city of Richmond, but also as a human family and how we expect to go forward with respect toward each other,” said Ana F. Edwards, chair of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project.

mfitzgerald@timesdispatch.com

Twitter: @MaddyFitzWrites

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