Reclaiming Our Sacred Ground


Originally published in the Autumn 2022 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 70, printed December 14. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Autumn 2022 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post. For other issues dating back to 2012, see the Full Issues page.

Staff Report

This light projection declaring solidarity with the great slave rebellion leader was a collaboration between Recontextualizing Richmond and the Sacred Ground Project. Photo by Phil Wilayto.

Close to 200 people turned out Oct. 10 at the African Burial Ground in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom for the 20th Annual Gabriel Gathering.

“We gather to honor Gabriel and all those who gave their lives in the cause of freedom; to celebrate more than 20 years of learning the history of this sacred ground; and to rededicate ourselves to reclaiming and properly memorializing Shockoe Bottom, once the epicenter of the U.S. domestic slave trade,” explained Ana Edwards, chair of the Defenders’ Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project, which sponsors the annual event.

Oct. 10 was the date in 1800 when the great slave rebellion leader Gabriel was executed at this site. The 24-year-old literate blacksmith led the secret, mass organizing that came close to ending slavery in Virginia.

This year, Oct. 10 also was Indigenous People’s Day, and so the evening’s program began with remarks by Vanessa Bolin, founder of the Richmond Indigenous Society.

Defender and Rastafarian elder Janet “Queen Nzinga” Taylor then performed a libation ceremony, after which she shared her thoughts on the meaning of the day.

Defender and Rastafarian elder Janet “Queen Nzinga” Taylor addresses the crowd after performing a libation ceremony following the acknowledgement of Indigenous People’s Day. Photo by Phil Wilayto.

Other speakers and the topics they addressed were:

Pamela Bingham, a direct descendent of Gabriel, speaking on “The Legacy of Gabriel.”

Ryan Doherty, historian, addressing “Tracing Enslaved Women’s Void in Gabriel’s Uprising.”

Hassan Shabazz, Defender and prisoner rights activist, on “Shockoe Bottom as one of the first examples of mass incarceration.”

Charles Brown, Defender and organizer with the national office of the United Electrical Workers, speaking on “The continuing exploitation of Black labor.”

Ram Bhagat, Ph.D., an educator, community healer and founder of the Drums No Guns Foundation, speaking on “Massive Resilience A Tribute for Gabriel.”

Phil Wilayto, editor of The Virginia Defender, on “What’s next in the struggle to reclaim Shockoe Bottom?”

Solidarity Letters were read from Michael Blakey, Ph.D., Director of the Institute for Historical Biology at the College of William & Mary; Elizabeth Kostelny, CEO of Preservation Virginia; and Braden Paynter of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.

There also were cultural presentations by Ram Bhagat (drumming); J. Ron Fleming, Jr., an actor with the recently concluded, sold-out run of “Gabriel” at Richmond’s Firehouse Theater; and Hassan Shabazz, who performed an original rap about Shockoe Bottom.

The program concluded with an open mic session, during which many of those present shared their thoughts and feelings on the various subjects explored during the program.

The program was co-chaired by Ana Edwards and Joseph S.H. Rogers, a Defender, public historian and descendant of James Apostle Fields, a man born into slavery and later elected to the Virginia General Assembly.

And there were the light installations!

This year, the Sacred Ground Project collaborated with several organizations to present light shows that illustrated the history of the area and the struggle to reclaim it.

“We Are Gabriel,” a video projection on the tunnel connecting the African Burial Ground with the Devil’s Half-Acre, illustrated the history of the Shockoe Bottom struggle and the story of Gabriel, while “Raising Shockoe Creek” was a light and botanical installation that symbolized the creek that once ran through the burial ground. Both projects were co-designed by Recontextualizing Richmond and Sacred Ground.

“Praise Your Mother / Ama a la Mamá,” a neon LED installation by artists Sandy Williams IV and Mariana Parisca, was a bilingual meditation on the feminine forces that birth and nurture us.

Networked Public Space was a research project of the University of Virginia Next Cities Institute which brought environmental issues into visibility through sensors that respond to sound and air pollution, changing their lighting patterns on site in real-time and visualizing the data online.

And “Gabriel’s Ascension” was a “community come up and portal keepers experience” by Untold RVA “Keepers of the Light.”

The 20th Annual Gabriel Gathering was hosted by the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project of the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality

The entire program was live streamed and recorded by Defender Ayame Rogers and is available on the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project Facebook page.

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