Once a dead end, a Richmond cemetery earns new respect
On Jan. 20, the federal government reopened historic review of the 123-mile Washington, DC to Richmond (DC2RVA) segment of the proposed Southeast High-Speed Rail project, which when complete will increase intercity passenger rail travel throughout the southeast region. Initially, the railway was planned to be built through one of the largest cemeteries for enslaved people in America, the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground. Plans, apparently, have changed.
It’s been nearly four years since I wrote about the cemetery, then known as Richmond’s Grave Yard for Free People of Color and Slaves, a formerly unrecognized resting place of over 20,000 Black people in the belly of what was once the nation’s second-largest slave trading epicenter. Some things have changed; many things haven’t.
The cemetery has finally earned the local and national attention it deserves and, renamed the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground, was added to the state’s historic landmarks register and the National Register of Historic Places in 2022. Much of this progress is thanks to Lenora McQueen, a descendent of at least three people buried in the cemetery whose dogged efforts to preserve the place pushed boundaries – literally and figuratively.
Before the historic designations, “they had totally pushed this burial ground out of the way, minimized it, cut it down to its 1835 site size of a little over 3 acres, pushed it south on maps. But at the time it closed, it was about 31 acres,” said McQueen in a phone interview last week. “The minimization was purposeful.”
Making the cemetery seem smaller would make it easier for the high-speed rail to be built through it, McQueen believes. For the past five years, she and a volunteer team of archaeologists and public historians have advocated fiercely for the burial ground’s full boundaries to be recognized by the city of Richmond, Federal Railroad Administration, Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transit and Virginia Department of Transportation, which oversaw the DC2RVA project at its start, in 2014.
In 2020 the General Assembly created the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority; its flagship program, Transforming Rail in Virginia, oversees more than a dozen passenger rail projects statewide, now including DC2RVA. Authority spokeswoman Gerica Goodman said she learned of the cemetery and McQueen’s work to protect it on her first day on the job in early 2022.
“I took an interest because I knew it was not something that was going away,” Goodman told me in a phone interview. “Our sole focus are these rail projects, and the major core of what we do is building infrastructure; [the cemetery] isn’t something that we could close our eyes to. We’re in Richmond, we’re in these communities, we have to work with communities to make sure we’re not being disruptive and to gain their trust.”
Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 requires that federally funded or managed projects be reviewed to determine if and how the project will impact historic spaces, and “seek ways to avoid, minimize or mitigate any adverse effects on historic properties.” As part of the Section 106 process for DC2RVA, the Department of Rail and Public Transit and its partner agencies conducted environmental, architectural and cultural studies in central Virginia starting in 2014, and consulted with property owners and other community stakeholders to identify historic properties that the project might impact.
In July 2019, the final Section 106 Memorandum of Agreement was released and revealed that 120 historic Virginia properties stood to be impacted by the rail project; 21 of these sites would be adversely affected. The Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground didn’t make the cut, despite McQueen’s insistence via letters, emails and phone calls that the cemetery was sacred ground that deserved protection.
“[The cemetery’s] size and importance were pretty much dismissed by their official reports, because there was no proof that the site housed anything beyond a jail and gallows,” said McQueen. “I told them, ‘I am the proof. My ancestors are buried there.’”
Something shifted in November 2022, when the 2019 memorandum was amended twice. Cory Gattie with the Federal Railroad Association explained via email “that the boundaries of the Shockoe Hill site were expanded due to its acquisition by the City of Richmond and listing in the National Register of Historic Places in 2022.” The changes also laid out what they called “a process for further consultation to assess effects and then seek ways to avoid, minimize or mitigate any adverse effects to the Shockoe Hill site.”
Goodman said the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority’s current goal as it relates to the burial ground “is to avoid it completely. Right now, [DC2RVA] would have an adverse effect on it, and we don’t want to do that.” Though no official determinations have been reached, Goodman added, the agency and its partners are analyzing alternative routes for the rail line that would not go through the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground. I, and I’m sure McQueen and other descendents of those interred there, eagerly await updates on that.
The cemetery has already seen state- and city-sanctioned desecration multiple times. In the 1880s, when the city regraded and expanded Fifth Street, some of the cemetery’s “dead bodies and bones” were exposed and used as fill in the road construction project, writes historian and historic preservation expert Dr. Ryan K. Smith. Ten years after that, the construction of the Fifth Street Viaduct further disturbed the burial ground. In the 1950s, under new zoning, the city sold a portion of the cemetery; that part eventually housed a gas station.
All of this was public knowledge, but the cemetery still didn’t merit full recognition until last year. What changed?
McQueen and others’ tireless advocacy for the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground most certainly drove the change. But the continued racial, social and economic turbulence in this country also moved the needle; all of it has forced Americans to reckon with our hard history and has made us admit how flawed a democracy we still are, one that, hundreds of years after abolishing slavery, is still not a fully equitable or equal country for the descendants of enslaved and other people of color. And the continued neglect of the cemetery would be nothing if not shameful; perhaps some state and city leaders don’t want to be embarrassed by their inaction any longer (as they should have been).
Whatever the cause, for me it is a reason for renewed hope. Hope that we can finally acknowledge and repair the harm reflected in the cemetery’s sad history. Hope that the cemetery continues to be recognized as the sacred space it is, and likewise protected from all future development. Hope that McQueen’s and others’ ancestors’ remains there can finally rest in peace. Hope that the cemetery will be just one of many formerly ignored sites of historic importance to Virginia’s communities of color that will gain attention and preservation. The work isn’t over yet; it has just begun.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this column included an incorrect reference to the cemetery’s name as Shockoe Valley African Burying Ground instead of Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground, and incorrectly attributed Cory Gattie as working in the Department of Rail and Public Transportation instead of the Federal Railroad Administration. Both errors have been corrected.