This story was published between issues of the newspaper. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes.
Originally published on the Virginia Defender Facebook page on October 11, 2020; subsequently printed in the Autumn 2020 edition of the newspaper, published October 29. To download a PDF of that issue or see other articles, see this post.
Virginia Defender Staff Report
RICHMOND, VA — The steady drizzle may have dampened the 3.1-acre grassy field, but not the spirits of the nearly 90 people who showed up Oct. 10 at Richmond’s African Burial Ground for the 18th Annual Gabriel Gathering.
By their presence, they declared their solidarity with the region’s great slave rebellion leader Gabriel, executed on this site in 1800, as well as their determination to continue the struggle to win the nine-acre Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park that would honor the memory of Gabriel, his many hundreds of sister and brother freedom fighters, and the sufferings and resistance of the hundreds of thousands of women, men and children who were sold out Shockoe Bottom, once the epicenter of the U.S. domestic slave trade.
The annual gathering, hosted by the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project of the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, featured a line-up of speakers who each had made some special contribution to promoting the memorialization of this sacred ground, which includes the municipal cemetery created for enslaved and free Africans; the site of a notorious slave jail known as the Devil’s Half-Acre and two adjacent blocks where other slave jails and slave trader offices once stood and which now are dilapidated municipal and private parking lots.
Sacred Ground Project Chair Ana Edwards, a public historian who herself is descended from people sold from Shockoe Bottom, opened with welcoming remarks, followed by a libation ceremony conducted by community elder and activist Queen Nzinga. Michaela Hatton, a young community activist and veteran of the months of the anti-racist protests that followed the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, read the seven demands adopted by the local protest movement.
The other presenters were Nana Monica Esparza and Queen Zakia Shabazz of the Afrikan Ancestral Chamber; Free Bangura of Untold RVA; Joseph Rogers, a historian, Defender and candidate for the city council district that includes the footprint of the memorial park; Pamela R. Bingham, a direct descendent of Gabriel; and Phil Wilayto, editor of The Virginia Defender newspaper.
The program began at 5:30 p.m, and ended just as the sun was setting. Lanterns were turned on at the small blue tent that protected the portable sound system and literature table. Torches were lit along the opposite edge of the cemetery. The mood was reflective, spiritual and quietly serious.
To promote safe practices in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone had been strongly encouraged to wear face masks. To help with social distancing, 100 white and yellow carnations were spaced 10 feet apart in the area in front of the speakers. After the program, attendees were encouraged to either take the flowers home as reminders of the event or else lay them at one of three areas in the burial ground: the city-sponsored plaques that describe the history of the cemetery; the African-inspired tekken, or obelisk, erected by the Afrikan Ancestral Chamber; and a row of small altars constructed by Untold RVA.
This year’s gathering took place at a critical time for the now-decades-long campaign to reclaim and properly memorialize Shockoe Bottom, a struggle that included blocking city plans to erect a baseball stadium on land where human beings once were held for auction.
Richmond will hold municipal elections on Nov. 3, and all five mayoral candidates have committed to supporting the proposal for the nine-acre memorial park, which developed in 2015 from a months-long community process led by the Sacred Ground Project. Further, Richmond City Council has approved a request from the present mayor, Levar Stoney, to devote $1.7 million for development of part of the memorial park and also a second, recently rediscovered Black cemetery in the nearby Barton Heights neighborhood.
Even so, a full decade after the first burial ground was reclaimed from its use as a Virginia Commonwealth University parking lot, Richmond’s city government has yet to create any kind of protective zoning for the cemetery, let alone the additional two blocks that would be part of the memorial park. That failure was a focal point of this year’s Gabriel Gathering, where attendees were encouraged to contact the mayor and their council representatives and urge them to establish the needed zoning. The contact information for these elected officials were printed on the back of the bright yellow programs handed out to everyone at the gathering.
It’s now a year until the 19th Annual Gabriel Gathering at Richmond’s African Burial Ground. With the commitment and determination on display at this year’s event, there is hope that the next 12 months will see concrete progress to creating the Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park.
HOW YOU CAN HELP AT THIS CRITICAL TIME:
All 2020 Richmond mayoral candidates and most members of Richmond City Council have expressed support for the Community Proposal for the 9-acre Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park. But now they are using the excuse of not being able to commit money during the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting recession. This is a false argument. City government can take one simple step to move the park forward without spending a dime: Create “protective zoning” for the park footprint, including the African Burial Ground, the Devil’s Half-Acre and the two blocks east of the CSX railroad tracks where other slave jails and trader offices once stood. You can help by contacting the mayor and members of city council.
PLEASE EMAIL OR CALL THE OFFICES OF THESE PUBLIC OFFICIALS AND URGE THEM TO SUPPORT PROTECTIVE ZONING FOR THE FOOTPRINT OF THE NINE-ACRE SHOCKOE BOTTOM MEMORIAL PARK
Mayor Levar Stoney email@example.com – 804-646-7970
1st District – Andreas D. Addison firstname.lastname@example.org – 804.646.59
2nd – Kimberly Gray email@example.com – 804.646.6532
3rd – Chris Hilbert Chris.Hilbert@Richmondgov.com – 804.646.6055
4th – Kristen Larson firstname.lastname@example.org – 804.646.5646
5th – Stephanie Lynch email@example.com – 804.646.5724
6th – Ellen Robertson firstname.lastname@example.org – 804.646.7964
7th – Cynthia Newbille email@example.com – 804.646.3012
8th – Reva Trammell firstname.lastname@example.org – 804.646.6591
9th – Michael Jones email@example.com – 804.646.2779