Richmond's Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground
Richmond's Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground is located at the intersection of North Fifth and Hospital streets and has been neglected for generations. Photo courtesy of Ryan Smith, VCU Department of History.

Long-neglected Black cemetery in Richmond added to Virginia Landmarks Register

A VCU history professor is part of a team that has worked for years to win state and federal recognition of the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground.

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An estimated 22,000 free and enslaved Black people are interred at Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground, established in 1816 as Richmond’s second African burial ground. Nothing marks the long neglected site, located at the intersection of North Fifth and Hospital streets, except the graffitied remains of a shuttered auto garage.

“With 22,000 free and enslaved burials over 30 acres, this was one of, if not the, largest burial ground for the enslaved in the nation,” said Ryan Smith, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University. “In comparison, the African Burial Ground [in] New York City was much smaller at about seven or so acres with an estimated 15,000 burials. That is a national monument and a touchstone for where people talk about a large, significant, long-running burial ground for the enslaved.”

Over the past several years, Smith has worked as part of a team seeking state and federal historic recognition of the Richmond site. On Thursday, the state review board and the board of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources voted unanimously to list the site, as part of a larger burying ground district, on the Virginia Landmarks Register.

Next month, the National Park Service will consider it for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

Along with Smith, the team includes Lenora McQueen, a Black woman from Texas who has traced at least three ancestors to the burial ground, including her fourth great-grandmother Kitty Cary, who was born enslaved and died in 1857 a few blocks from the cemetery; L. Dan Mouer, Ph.D., a retired VCU archaeology professor who led the Archaeological Research Center at VCU; and Steve Thompson, Ph.D., an archaeologist who has worked with descendants of enslaved communities in Albemarle County, Virginia, including McQueen, who has traced her enslaved ancestors to two plantations there.

“None of this would have been possible without the tireless dedication, research and advocacy by Lenora McQueen, a member of the descendant community of the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground,” Smith wrote Thursday in a blog post celebrating the nomination’s acceptance.

Smith, McQueen, Mouer and Thompson co-authored a nomination for the creation of a historic district that recognizes the African Burying Ground along with the adjacent Shockoe Hill Cemetery for whites and Hebrew Cemetery for Jewish people, both of which are already listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The idea to propose the African Burying Ground and the neighboring cemeteries — as well as several other nearby sites, including where a powder magazine blew up when the Confederates fled Richmond, and the sites of a city hospital, the so-called “colored almshouse” and a gallows where executions took place — was meant to commemorate the history of the site in its totality, including the African Burying Ground that had previously gone unrecognized.

The National Register of Historic Places generally recognizes sites with “integrity,” meaning that something, such as a historic structure, remains standing. For historically neglected Black cemeteries that have been systematically targeted with infrastructure projects and highway development, however, little often remains.

For the team’s nomination, they argue that while nothing of the burial ground remains above ground, the site’s integrity is that degradation and neglect itself.

“The destruction of that site could be seen as an important historical process,” said Smith, author of “Death and Rebirth in a Southern City: Richmond's Historic Cemeteries.” “We can see evidence of the mistreatment of that site over the years by what remains there today.”

As part of the nomination, the team had to describe the site’s “period of significance.” Importantly, they chose not to say the site was only historically significant from the African Burying Ground’s opening in 1816 until its closing in 1879.

“We could have said that the period of significance ended in 1879,” Smith said. “Instead, we said that the period of significance ended in 1968 when the construction of Interstate 64 across a portion of that burial ground was completed, meaning that for all of those years of the early 20th century, when authorities were running new roads and building railroads and digging up the site to use it as fill and to level out other grounds, that is still a part of the historical story that we need to recognize and is worthy of listing on the National Register.”

At Thursday’s meeting, Tucker Lemon, chair of the Board of Historic Resources, said the nomination was among the best the board had ever received. And it was backed by more letters of support than any other nomination in recent memory.

Letters were submitted by U.S. senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, as well as state senators and delegates and members of the Richmond City Council, along with The Cultural Landscape Foundation, Preservation Virginia, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and many others.

“Lenora McQueen has been so good about building allies for a site that had not had allies in the past,” Smith said. “She was able to prompt people far and wide to write these letters, all the way up to our two U.S. senators. … I think the Department of Historic Resources was frankly floored by the level of support. There was a groundswell of people trying for the success of this nomination.”

In his blog post, Smith noted that state and national register listings do not provide solid protection against ongoing threats to sites like the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground. But, he said, “it is a helpful tool and a highly visible recognition of the important history of this property that had not been acknowledged before.”