gravesite, slaves, Black graves, cemetery, Richmond, Virginia

Desecrated 1800s Black Cemetery Found With Graves Still Intact

The gravesite remains endangered, despite comprising of free and formerly enslaved Black people.

Archaeologists have made the surprising discovery of intact graves at a seemingly desecrated Black cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. The Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground was assumed to be mostly destroyed from land developments.

However, the gravesite remains endangered, despite comprising of free and formerly enslaved Black people. A radar scan, conducted on two-acres of the area at the end of 2023, revealed that at least 134 graves are intact. This revelation confirmed that the space, active from 1816 to 1879, was indeed a cemetery and not merely a memorial.

The findings initially stayed confidential due to fears of vandalism on the area. They finally unveiled the information to the public during a community meeting earlier this summer, as reported by The Washington Post. While estimated to have nearly 22,000 bodies, a billboard threatens the burial ground still.

The city of Richmond has called for the Lamar Advertising company to forfeit a billboard that stands on the ground. However, its progress in doing so has been relatively stagnant. One of the pylons of the billboard is directly on top of one grave, and potentially dozens more.

Lenora McQueen, a descendant of an enslaved woman buried there, recalled her shock to learn of the whole resting places.

“I was a little surprised that there were so many intact burials. I thought that there would be remains scattered all through there,” explained McQueen to The Post.

Photographs and news reports from the 1880s alluded to the improbability of full graves remaining at the site. However, McQueen’s research helped to re-establish the gravesite as a historical landmark.

Despite this recognition, the task to remove the billboard comes with complications. The risk of “ground disturbance,” as described by Kimberly Chen from Richmond’s planning and development department, remains prevalent.

A newly-created Shockhoe project also aims to establish a permanent memorial site on the land. Before this, however, the billboard’s existence on the ground must resolve.

Lamar legally acquired the area within the cemetery, leaving the city unable to block it off and further preserve the space. While willing to remove the billboard, Lamar also sought to profit off a proposed deal. It requested an exchange for six other locations instead, an offer that Richmond’s Mayor, Levar Stoney, heavily criticized.

“I think it is truly disgusting that a company is making profit on a property where the enslaved lie underneath. That’s problematic,” expressed Stoney during an interview with the news outlet. “So we want Lamar Advertising to do the right thing. And that is, to go above and beyond to show that they are going to be good corporate partners with the Richmond community.”

The battle is ongoing, leaving any preservation efforts in limbo for the precarious cemetery.

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