Former City Councilman Sa'ad El-Amin is suing Virginia Commonwealth University and its president, Michael Rao, for “desecrating” a former slave burial ground in Shockoe Bottom.
El-Amin filed a complaint in Richmond Circuit Court Tuesday seeking injunctive relief to block VCU from using a parking lot at 1541 E. Broad St., just north of Main Street Station. El-Amin, along with some historians, say the parking lot sits atop a former slave burial ground. El-Amin is also suing the Virginia Department of Historic Resources in an attempt to have the burial ground formally excavated and recognized as an historic site. A hearing for that lawsuit has been set for Oct. 18.
On Tuesday, however, El-Amin's target was VCU.
“We are here to get VCU's asphalt off of our burial ground,” El-Amin said on the steps of the John Marshall Courts Building downtown, elongating the first vowel, as in “ASSphalt.” One can only imagine, El-Amin said, if the shoe were on the other foot.
“What do you think would happen if I drove over to Hollywood Cemetery and parked my car on one of those Confederate generals?” he asked.
King Salim Khalfani, executive director of the state NAACP, also stressed the “ass” in asphalt, joining El-Amin in lambasting VCU and Rao: “We say get your asphalt off of our ancestors!”
The lawsuit contends VCU's Rao expressed an interest in resolving the issue in early September during a meeting with the NAACP and El-Amin.
“Rao conceded that he was anxious to resolve the incompatibility of parking cars on the Burial Ground, which he referred to as the ‘Sacred Ground' and indicated that he was exploring a land swap with the City of Richmond, having been unsuccessful with this approach with the State of Virginia,” El-Amin argues in the complaint. “In agreeing to do a land swap, Rao concedes that the Burial Ground encompasses the entire area used by VCU as a parking lot.”
VCU officials couldn't immediately be reached for comment. The complaint represents one of the first public confrontations with VCU since Rao took over as university president in February 2009. At the press conference Tuesday, El-Amin and Khalfani both suggested that the slave burial ground issue was part of a broader pattern of neglect on the part of VCU.
“This is just one part of the deliberate indifference that VCU has toward our people,” El-Amin said, adding that VCU has done little to partner with city schools, for example, and continues to be a drain on city tax coffers.
As a state-owned university, VCU pays no real estate taxes. VCU's academic and medical campuses represent $1.48 billion in assessed real estate, a study prepared by City Council staff found last fall. That represents $17.7 million in tax revenue the city's losing each year.