Reclaiming Our Sacred Ground


Originally published in the Summer 2022 edition of The Virginia Defender, issue 69, printed July 27. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Summer 2022 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post. For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.

By Ana Edwards

The Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground, a long-abused and then forgotten cemetery owned by the city of Richmond that may have contained the burial sites of as many as 22,000 free and enslaved Black people, finally has received a modicum of recognition.

On the sunny afternoon of Sunday, June 12, the Swansboro Elementary School choir sang for the unveiling ceremony of a new Virginia State Historic Highway marker installed at 1305 N. 5th St. The signage marks the original 2-acre plot that grew to more than 31 acres of what may have been the largest 19th-century municipal cemetery for free and enslaved Black people in the entire country.

A Virginia state historic highway marker now stands at the site of the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground. Photo by Kwame Binta.

The cemetery was closed in 1879, after which the land was desecrated by private and municipal projects, including the 5th Street viaduct, Interstate 64 and the railroad.

Close to 100 people attended the unveiling ceremony, which was emceed by Sacred Ground Project Chair Ana Edwards. Speakers included Mayor Levar Stoney; City Councilmember Ellen Robertson; representatives from U.S. Sen. Mark Warner’s office and the Department of Historic Resources; and Lenora McQueen, whose fourth-great-grandmother was buried at the site and who has played the major role in convincing the City to recognize the importance of the burial ground.

The site was added this past March to the Virginia Landmark Register and in June to the National Register of Historic Places.

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