African burial ground reclaimed

Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones led a procession to lift hunks of asphalt from a parking lot off East Broad Street, culminating years of struggle to reclaim the site as a burial ground for slaves and free blacks.

“We’re here today to begin beautifying this land that it might become a memorial … that we might remember the stony road over which we have come,” Jones told a solemn gathering alongside Interstate 95 that included city and state representatives and Virginia Commonwealth University President Michael Rao.

Three contracting companies are scheduled to start work to remove 10 inches of asphalt and gravel and convert the 3.4-acre African Burial Ground property into a sod-covered memorial by mid-July 2011.

A portion of the property is believed to contain one of the nation’s oldest municipal cemeteries for enslaved and free blacks. The site, used as a burial ground from about 1750 to 1816, has been a parking lot since the 1970s. It was purchased by VCU in 2008.

An archaeologist will be at the site in case any artifacts are unearthed, but Jones said he does not believe it’s necessary to pursue soil tests to determine the location of the burial ground. He did not rule out tests but said the resources should be focused on improving the Richmond Slave Trail and planning a slavery museum across Broad Street, near the site of the Lumpkin’s slave jail.

“I think that we have enough (documented) history to be very sure that this is a historical spot,” he said.

The exact location of the burial ground is not clear, and it might have been disturbed years ago with the construction of I-95, the diversion of Shockoe Creek and other changes to the land, according to state archaeologists and the Slave Trail Commission.

Activists who have spent the past three years protesting VCU’s use of the parking lot objected to Rao’s presence at Tuesday’s event by holding up handmade posters with messages, such as “Dr. Rao Go Home! Asphalt Go!”

Rao did not address the crowd but said in an interview, “I’m really just glad that we were able to bring this to a point by working together, and we’re able to honor this property.”

Phil Wilayto, an activist who was charged with trespassing last month while he and others blocked entrances to the parking lot, was among those who considered Rao’s participation inappropriate.

“VCU is celebrating the victory that the community won while still upholding the charges against some of the people who helped bring this about,” he said. “It’s very ironic, but we won, and we’re going to win (today), too.”

Wilayto and his three co-defendants are scheduled for trial today in Richmond General District Court. After Tuesday’s ceremony, he raised a chunk of asphalt and stood with his co-defendants as a video camera documented the moment.

In his remarks, Jones referred to the disagreements but said many people deserve credit for helping to turn the parking lot into a memorial.

He cited the Richmond Slave Trail Commission, as well as activists with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and those who had been arrested. He thanked city and state officials who approved the property’s transfer from VCU to the city with the help of $3.3 million in state funds.

Jones also credited VCU for making the property available two months earlier than it could have and thanked three contracting firms that are donating about $123,000 in services to remove the asphalt.

Reclaiming the burial ground, Jones said, honors those buried at the site and serves as a reminder of the discrimination, abuse and mistreatment to which they and others were subjected.

“Because we memorialize this property today, it’s a signal for us to march forward together, unified, not fighting each other, but working together to ensure that the true history of our past is displayed … to all who will come to this place,” Jones said.

The Rev. Adia Shabazz, who brought her two young daughters to the ceremony, said she is pleased that the asphalt is being removed but has mixed feelings about the festivities.

“People who have not worked as consistently are very prominent now,” she said, declining to elaborate.

From Richmond Times-Dispatch