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Pave to Save?

VCU's bulldozers in Shockoe Bottom may actually protect slave burial ground.



Virginia Commonwealth University's decision to repave its parking lot astride the Burial Ground for Negroes sparked protests last week, but some experts and city officials say a few tons of asphalt could be just what's needed to keep the site safe.

“It keeps the ghoulish out,” says Lyle Browning, an archeologist with Midlothian-based Browning & Associates. “There are people, knowing there are people in the ground with artifacts, that will go down and dig. Finding some way to prevent people from doing that is a good thing.”

The Shockoe Bottom parking lot may have caused a stir, but some people say the unintended consequence isn't a bad one — that the history is locked in — even if it makes for ugly PR. Still, Browning says, capping a cemetery with an asphalt parking lot “simply isn't a respectful way to treat human remains.”

The burial ground is located on the north side of Broad Street where the CSX rail lines cross to enter Main Street Station. The area first sparked controversy last year when VCU set plans in motion to repave the property while city-hired archeologists were finding rich artifacts at the nearby Lumpkin's Slave Jail site. At the time, VCU put off those plans and later designated a 50-foot area to memorialize the burial ground.

“We recognize that obviously nothing can be done to the burial ground if it's paved over,” says Ana Edwards, a protest organizer with the Richmond Defenders. “Our concern is … the decision-making process is out of the hands of the community.”

Last year the city-appointed Slave Trail Commission held discussions with VCU in which the university offered to sell the property for $3 million. That offer remains, according to VCU spokeswoman Pamela Lepley, but city or private funds to make the purchase have been elusive.

“Where would we get $3 million from?” says Delegate Delores McQuinn, head of the commission. There was talk of a trade-off for other property, she says, because VCU's interest is to provide "parking for their students.”

Further discussions with VCU have not occurred, she says, and a spokeswoman for Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones says there's been little conversation in the mayor's office yet over how or whether to proceed with the Burial Ground.

“It's not anything the administration has taken any position on as of yet,” says Jones' press secretary, Tammy Hawley.

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