Former City Councilman Sa'ad El-Amin has reloaded in his fight to preserve Shockoe Bottom's Old Negro Burial Ground.
El-Amin amended his lawsuit against the state Department of Historic Resources and its director, Kathleen Kilpatrick, in Richmond Circuit Court last week, demanding that the court require Kilpatrick to determine the boundaries of the burial ground.
El-Amin's amended suit is broader, asking that the court order Kilpatrick “to properly identify, explore, evaluate, preserve and protect the African Burial Ground.” The original suit, tossed out July 1 by Judge C.N. Jenkins Jr., specified that Kilpatrick “use state-of-the-art equipment” until “no burials are observed to be present.”
A June 2008 historic-resources study argues that the majority of the cemetery, identified as “Old Negro Burial Ground” on an 1810 city map, lies under Interstate 95 north of the 17th Street Farmers' Market, but that a 50-foot-wide sliver may extend under a parking lot owned by Virginia Commonwealth University.
El-Amin's original petition included an affidavit by College of William and Mary anthropologist Michael Blakey, who contends that the burial ground's dimensions likely extend beyond the 50 feet, contrary to the state's report.
Among other allegations in his amended petition, El-Amin charges that Kilpatrick, “in adopting the [conclusions of the state] report has failed and refused to carry out her statutory duties … with respect to the Burial Ground.”
Kilpatrick says she's read Blakey's report and considers it a valid hypothesis, but says “it does not appear to bear a huge amount of relationship to anything that is specific to this situation … but rather to be based on his experience in New York.” Blakey was the scientific director for excavation of an African burial ground in that city.
Kilpatrick estimates the cost of a test of the 50-foot wide portion of the parking lot would cost $100,000. She points to infill and water issues at the nearby Lumpkin's Jail excavation that she says spiked the project's cost from $150,000 to more than $400,000.
El-Amin says he and other burial ground advocates are seeking pro bono sources for an excavation. Until then, he's ready to file an appeal should the court reject his latest petition, which he says is “the tip of the spear” in a planned effort to address sites related to black history.
“As soon as we get this under wraps we'll be looking to challenge the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue,” El-Amin says. “That's the next suit. It's sitting there, it's already prepared.”